By Seymour A. Cummin
When was the last time you read the Nevada County Land Use Code?
Many of us would probably say, “never”, and understandably so.
Reading it would probably be as interesting as, “watching paint dry” or “grass grow.”
For that matter, after all, our elected officials are watching over the business at hand with our best interest in mind. Right?
When or if one DOES read it they would think, “I’m sure they didn’t really mean what it implies nor would those responsible to carry it out be as merciless as government in other areas are proving to be.”
With that in mind, I’m going to provide you the opening paragraphs of the “Nevada County Land Use & Development Code-Chapter II-Zoning Regulations” and you tell me how it strikes you or better yet - maybe you should speak to your County Supervisor.
It’s time to start asking questions.
Section L-II 5.19 Legal Nonconforming Uses and Structures
A. Purpose. Within the zoning districts established by this Chapter, there may be
uses and structures which were lawful before the effective date of the applicable
terms of the regulations, but which are prohibited, regulated, or restricted under
the terms of the regulations currently in effect or by future amendments. Relative
to such uses and structures, it is the purpose of this Section to:
Reduce them to conformity or to eliminate them through abandonment,
obsolescence, or destruction due to strict provisions against changes that
could perpetuate them.
Provide for their regulation and to specify the circumstances and
conditions under which they may continue to exist until brought into
conformity, removed, or terminated.
The words used in these paragraphs are very loaded, even explosive.
Terms such as “REDUCING them to conformity or…ELIMINATING…through ABANDONMENT, OBSOLESCENCE, or DESTRUCTION due to STRICT PROVISIONS”….they may not be “planning” to do it now, but “providing for their regulation …specify the circumstances and conditions they MAY continue until brought into CONFORMITY, REMOVED, or TERMINATED.”
With the content of these words it begs the question: What is our government code setting us up for?
There is a glaring and troubling fact in this code. The County began requiring permits in 1963 and there is no mention of houses built prior to that date being exempt. Furthermore, in the 1960s, and 1970s at the time of construction, a builder could modify and even enlarge a home on site without modification of the permits. Within our County, during this era, many existing structures or portions of structures were built for which permits were never issued. A prime example of this are the many existing outbuildings and decks built without the requirement of permits at the time.
So, today, if one were to ask a code compliance officer, “What needs to be done to bring this situation into compliance?” Chances are you would be told, “Well, it’s all on a case by case basis. We’ll work with you, but you will need to pay the planning fees plus an “As Built” penalty of 20% of the planning fees.” It sounds comforting, but on a “case by case basis” the question arises: Who and what will be the deciding basis on which decisions will be made? Could one individual be treated better than another?
What if you are not as nice as the previous guy…or you’re a little steamed by the way you were treated with a citation or - heaven help us - the person behind the counter was having a bad day, would you be treated differently? If you were the one that brought a scone and latte for the person behind the counter would you be treated differently than the person who didn’t? In other words, are bribes allowable and could we be reduced to that level?
Past policy has been that Code Enforcement is complaint driven – not something I totally agree upon, but it does lend itself to one being a good neighbor in the "‘hood”." Due to some recent changes the complaint driven policy runs the serious risk of becoming draconian!
This department of enforcement has recently been given the authority to levy fines and collect on the infractions they find to fund their operations! I believe that is NOT a good practice and could very easily lead to abuse.
For example, one of the cudgels that will be held over our head, should one decide to argue against the County Enforcement position, is that the time spent by the County investigating and/or talking to other departments (ie. Code Enforcement to Building Department, Community Development Agency, Environmental Health, or County Counsel etc) gets an hourly fee attached and becomes part of the fine levied on the party being charged. Could not the threat of that potentially astronomical fee cause one to think twice about challenging the County’s position?
This practice deserves more public scrutiny than it is receiving. True, there a few “bad apples” in the world around us that need monitoring, but is this something we want to turn loose upon ourselves?
Read the code, and ask yourself, “can this happen to me, am I vulnerable?”
What you may find is that many of us are not in conformance in one way or another.
For example, if you live on a lot of 1 or 2 acres in size in an Agricultural zone - which is now rezoned into 5 acre parcels – you are “Nonconforming.” Suppose you are planning to sell this piece of property, you will be required to spend approximately $200.00 to get a letter from the County basically saying, “If your house burns down and it can conform to the present standards and setbacks it may be rebuilt.”
What if you purchased property which has an unpermitted barn – you are “Nonconforming.” Who is responsible for that “fault?" Is it the originator of the issue (who may be 4 owners past), the previous owner, the present owner, the real estate agent?
Let’s say you are expanding your back patio on a weekend or replacing windows, or have a project as “small” as installing a new water heater (all items which require a permit) and your cranky neighbor turns you in to code enforcement because he didn’t see any indication of a building permit. It may be as simple as getting a permit (if you needed one), but on “a case by case basis” what will be the amount of your fees? Will you be required to bring other things (the unpermitted barn) into conformity? By their presence, will they be enabled to spot issues in an adjoining neighbor’s yard requiring “conformity?"
That is just for starters, and in today’s environment I believe it’s all about the money. It’s no longer enough to have built to code with a contractor’s services. If permits for existing structures cannot be found, the possibility remains that walls will need opening to “prove” what the wiring and plumbing looks like, or to determine if bolts were used in the mudsills, and the list goes on.
Now, we can dismiss this whole issue by thinking “what’s the big deal?”
When it happens to you, will you be saying, “What’s the big deal?”
This writer feels this is a turn for the worse in our county.
We already have the government involved in too much of our lives and to have a department given this much license will be only as “good” as the people meting out the discipline “on a case by case basis.”
Many will rue the day – some already are.