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Of Design Review, Code Enforcement and the City Attorney's Priorities

I stopped by the Design Review Board meeting last Thursday for a few minutes between other events just to get a sense of how the meeting was going. Probably the scene that most impressed me was of three -- count ‘em -- three city attorneys in the staff box.


I have never seen three city attorneys at a public meeting before, and after talking to some who attended the entire meeting, it became clear why such an impressive lawyer turnout was needed. It was to protect Chevron from what might have been an overzealous Design Review Board simply trying to do its job for the people of Richmond.


One Design Review Board member later remarked:


You may have observed that several times the City Attorney's people admonished the Board to stay on design issues.  Having the City's legal eagles sitting there fuming leads me to conclude that they will be among the first to disallow some of our conditions.  Until and unless those same legal people get it through their heads that safety is a primary concern of the DRB.  But, then again, the DRB is soon "not-to-be" so what do they really care. 


This observation of the interest the City Attorney’s Office took to protect Chevron from ordinary citizens is especially remarkable because of the lack of interest the same office has shown in protecting the rights and looking out for the interests of ordinary citizens when it comes to one of the City’s principal obligations – code enforcement.


“Code enforcement” is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of activities that cities routinely take to enforce land use and nuisance laws. While violations usually do not constitute immediate threats to life, health and safety, they violate the rights of residents and businesses to enjoy a reasonable quality of life, they threaten property values and they contribute to crime and neighborhood disintegration (the “broken window” syndrome). 


Unlike Richmond, most cities take code enforcement very seriously, and there are national organizations for code enforcement, such as the American Association of Code Enforcement. Public employees who do code enforcement in other cities and counties take great pride in their work and consider themselves professionals and specialists. In California, there is a statewide organization, California Association of Code Enforcement Officers. You can Google “Code Enforcement” and find thousands of city websites and other documents related to code enforcement.


In Richmond, however, code enforcement is broken – badly broken. Effective code enforcement requires the participation, collaboration and commitment of several city departments. Planning and Building Regulations have to be involved with land use code violations. The Police Department typically handles nuisance violations and also gets involved in more serious matters such as drug houses and violations of Conditional Use Permits for premises with liquor licenses. The City Attorney’s Office rarely initiates a code enforcement action but provides critical backup for legal advice and code interpretations, appeals, litigation involving recalcitrant violators and recommending revisions to ordinances as required. To a lesser extent, the Housing Authority comes into play when Section 8 properties are involved, and the Redevelopment Agency, as a property owner, has been a major violator itself.


The term “abatement” is often confused with code enforcement because the term is used loosely and ambiguously. The Public Work Department provides “abatement” when it cleans up trash dumped on a City street, and when an abandoned building is demolished, that is also called “abatement.”


So, how are these departments doing?


  • Planning and Building Regulations is probably the worst. They don’t respond to complaints, and when they do, they usually don’t have a clue what they are doing. Communication with the public and inter-departmental collaboration is virtually non-existent.
  • The Police Department tries hard and can be pretty effective until they need support from Planning and Building Regulations or the City Attorney, then everything falls apart. Sgt. Darren Monahan is a breath of fresh air, and the code enforcement officers who work under him are as effective as they can be within the constraints of a broken system. Monahan and his officers are the principal responders to complaints filed on CORConnect. Monahan works with a civilian code enforcement director, I understand, but no one knows his or her name or has met him or her.
  • The City Attorney’s Office is pretty much ineffective. They do not support the Police or aggressively push a code enforcement agenda – probably too busy protecting Chevron from the Design Review Board.
  • The City Council continues to condone and support this broken down code enforcement effort by not taking actions that could change or improve the outcomes.
  • Public Works: Although more of an abatement component than a code enforcement component, Public Works seems to be pretty responsive when alerted for cleanups.


Let me give a few examples of the ineffectiveness of Richmond’s code enforcement efforts.


  • Graffiti on fences, retaining walls and other structures either in or abutting the railroad rights of way has been rampant for years. Either Jim Rogers or I have placed this on City Council agendas at least half a dozen times because staff has been unresponsive to more informal inquiries. Instead of aggressively enforcing the Richmond ordinance making property owners responsible (in this case BNSF and UP), the City has actually paid the railroads to place flagmen while City employees clean up the graffiti free of charge (to the railroad), but not, of course, free of charge to Richmond taxpayers. The City Manager’s Office and the City Attorney’s Office continue to take a “touchie-feelie” approach to the railroads, promising that they are “talking.” They also aver that they don’t know where the railroad property lines are and are therefore reluctant to take any action. For a more detailed look at this pitiful situation that includes not just graffiti but multiple code violations, click here. When it comes to actually doing something, the city attorney appears to be intimidated by large corporations or perhaps just doesn’t know what to do.


Incidentally, two weeks ago, I was driving on I-580 in the afternoon and spotted a couple of kids doing graffiti on one of the most popular graffiti fences east of the UP tracks. I called RPD, and they responded quickly, catching two 15-year olds from Albany in the act. Go RPD!


  • In the summer of 2007, I received complaints from several residents of the Richmond Annex about construction projects that were proceeding either without proper approvals or in violation of approvals and permits. One of these was at 5420 Highland and the other at 6101 Panama. I first asked Planning and Building Regulations for information, but they were either unresponsive or their response had no substance. I then initiated my own inquiry by requesting a full copy of the project files. What I got were dribs and drabs with important documents omitted. In both cases, it turned out that the neighbors were correct. In one case, the owner had moved a large amount of soil into an area not shown on the approved plans and in violation of the Grading Ordinance. In the other case, the owner had almost totally reconstructed a house, dodging Design review and violating a setback requirement. Later the owner rehabilitated a second structure without a permit. Because staff was taking no action, placed the matter on the City Council agenda for a permit revocation hearing. The City Council was no help; they just passed it back to the city manager on November 27, 2007:


                L-4. Consider directing the Planning Commission under Richmond Municipal Code 15.04.990.030 to revoke or modify a permit for a home constructed at 1241 South 55th Street - Councilmember Butt (236-7435).


                L-5. Consider directing the Planning Commission, under Richmond Municipal Code 15.04.990.030, to hold a hearing to consider revoking or modifying a permit for alterations and additions to a home at 6101 Panama Avenue - Councilmember Butt (236-7435).


What did the City do? The owners received very nice letters asking them to come down and talk. Click here for 5420 Highland and Click here for 6101 Panama. Despite continuing complaints and inquiries from neighbors and me, that appears to be the end of it. As far as I know, no effective action has been taken, and the violations remain.


  • Richmond has a lot of vacant and abandoned buildings, for example the gas station on the northwest corner of Cutting Boulevard and Harbour Way. I received a complaint about this in August 2007, and I thought it might make a good assignment for my new City Council intern, Darren Ross. What he found out is that Richmond has a procedure in RMC Chapter 6.38 (sections 010-160), that requires owners of "Vacant Dwellings or Buildings" to obtain a "boarding permit" at a cost of $54.00 and make necessary improvements to restore the property to code with its 6 month duration. The application for the "boarding permit" includes a timeline and plan for rehabilitation. This permit may be renewed once at the end of this period, yet further extensions may be granted thereafter if the owner is able to show "good cause" that the repairs were inhibited and will be completed in the future. Each renewal requires the submission of updated plan. What Ross also found out is that the code enforcement effort is so dysfunctional that the ordinance is not being enforced. Consequently, nearly six months later, the eyesore at Harbour and Cutting is still a community blight with nothing happening. It is owned, by the way, by someone with a Vallejo mailing address. I took Darren off the blight abatement project because it appeared to be a waste of time little prospect for a fruitful outcome.


To be fair, I have to say that both the city manager and city attorney admit to the deficiencies in code enforcement and have said they are committed to repairing them. I hope they are correct, and I wish them nothing but success. Meanwhile, code enforcement is, itself, a blight on City government and a continuing disappointment to the people of Richmond and to me.


What can you do? Click on “reply to all” and send a message to the City Council, the city manager and the city attorney telling them that you are fed up with the ineffectiveness of code enforcement and demand that the system be fixed now.