A familiar scourge in Fresno’s never-ending fight against neighborhood blight may soon get the City Council’s special attention.
We’re talking abandoned vehicles.
The problem is surprisingly complex, as I learned by experience.
I stopped by Del Estabrooke’s City Hall office last week. Estabrooke is head of both the code enforcement and parking divisions, though he will soon devote all his energies to code.
“Let me share with you all things abandoned,” Estabrooke said with a smile.
Turns out city employees over the past 12 years have authorized the hauling away of several thousand abandoned vehicles of every size and shape. There are two reasons for this yeoman-like effort.
First, abandoned vehicles can be a threat to public safety. You don’t want to ignore that old car sitting atop four tree stumps (a real-life example) in a neighborhood full of wandering kids.
Second, abandoned vehicles are a neighborhood eyesore.
Both reasons resonate in Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s wide-ranging campaign to restore vitality to every corner of Fresno, but particularly in the older parts of town. She aims to do this in large part by using city resources to help improve the housing stock and beautify neighborhoods.
Let’s go back to 2004 for context. Estabrooke said that’s when then-Mayor Alan Autry and the City Council decided the Police Department, then in charge of abandoned vehicle enforcement, had better things to do.
Estabrooke helped write a new ordinance for abandoned vehicles. Enforcement moved to his shop.
“We had a problem with people selling cars, staging cars, parking cars where they don’t belong,” Estabrooke said. “We had people leaving RVs and stuff that long (he showed me a photograph of an immense truck-trailer rig) in front of their home for weeks.”
State law says a properly registered vehicle can be parked on a public right-of-way. In other words, the street.
“We said, ‘OK, but it’s got to be moved once every 72 hours,” Estabrooke said. “Then it’s not abandoned.”
There are lots of vehicles in Fresno. City Hall generally depends on the public to let it know about abandoned vehicles. You know, a phone call.
“We go out and chalk the tires,” Estabrooke said. “We come back 72 hours later. If that vehicle hasn’t been moved, we can tow it.”
But if the tires have moved all of, say, two inches, Estabrooke said, “it’s considered abated.”
That’s bureaucratese for the car’s fine, and the upset neighbor who called in the complaint is back to square one.
Most abandoned vehicles are cars or trucks. Estabrooke said the original 2004 ordinance called for city officials to look through the driver’s window and check the odometer. That idea died when everything in cars went digital.
“Once the tire is moved, it’s abated,” Estabrooke said. “A lot of people know that. They play the game. So, we respond over and over” to neighbor complaints.
But often the vehicle in question is truly abandoned.
Let’s say the old Ford parked along the curb on Oak Street fails the 72-hour chalked-tire test. An employee from the Parking Division runs the license plate ID through the Police Department. If the vehicle is stolen, then officers could respond to what might be a crime scene.
“If it’s not stolen, we’ll look around – is the owner nearby?” Estabrooke said. “We’ll knock on the door: ‘Hey, what are you doing with this piece of junk?’”
City officials don’t go through the chalked-tire test if an abandoned vehicle is deemed a threat to public safety. The towing company is called immediately.
Public-safety threat or not, the abandoned vehicle is hauled away by a private towing company. The Police Department has a list of approved companies.
The tow-truck driver fills out a special form, Estabrooke said. The towing company and police each get a copy. That’s important because there’s a chance the vehicle isn’t abandoned. The owner may wake up the next morning and see his car gone. He’ll call the police. The police then tell him where to find his car.
Estabrooke said an abandoned vehicle ticket is $108. The tow can cost $50 to $100. Then there’s the towing company’s impound fee.
If the car is truly abandoned, then the towing company eventually works through DMV to take legal ownership. The car more than likely is sold for scrap.
“What all this does is it cleans up the town,” Estabrooke said.
The city last June launched its FresGO mobile app, a high-tech tool to help Fresnans easily make requests for municipal services. Abandoned vehicles is among the top three FresGO requests for help.
Estabrooke said 108 abandoned vehicles have been hauled away in the last three months. He said it’s not unusual for City Hall to get 30 or more abandoned-vehicle service requests through FresGo in a single day.
The Parking Division has just two people assigned to abandoned vehicles.
But that doesn’t mean only two city employees are involved with abandoned vehicles. The Parking Division handles vehicles parked on the street. The Code Enforcement Division handles vehicles parked on private property.
This is an important distinction in part because it can affect the size of the fine. An abandoned car parked on the street means a $108 citation. An abandoned car in the middle of a lot with a vacant house could trigger the city’s new Blighted Vacant Building ordinance. Events could unfold in such a way that an uncooperative property owner might face as much as $15,000 in fines plus legal action in Superior Court for letting that abandoned car just sit there.
“Look at what I deal with,” Estabrooke said to me. He had in his hands about 15 large photos of unusual abandoned vehicles his team handled over the years. To describe some as a “vehicle” is to be generous. There was one car with so much trash pouring out of various windows that the Solid Waste Division (garbage) had to be called in. The towing company wouldn’t touch it.
Estabrooke said his team recently hauled away an abandoned scissor lift.
“We’ll tow anything,” Estabrooke said.
I recently learned firsthand what an abandoned vehicle can do to a neighborhood’s collective equanimity. I live near Bullard High School. I woke up one Sunday morning to discover a large Ford flatbed truck parked across the street from my house. The truck’s bed was full of green waste.
The truck stayed there for four days.
I live in a county island. I called the county on the fourth day. The county said the California Highway Patrol deals with abandoned vehicles in unincorporated areas. I called the CHP.
A day later I saw a CHP warning notice on the Ford’s windshield.
Twenty-four hours later, the Ford had been moved a hundred yards to the east. That short move took the truck into the city. CHP was out of the picture.
Why didn’t the Ford’s owner take the truck home? I have no idea. I never saw anyone get into the truck.
This cat-and-mouse game continued for the next 10 days or so. The truck would stay in one spot in the neighborhood for about 72 hours, then be moved in the middle of the night to another spot a few yards away. It was one ugly truck.
Finally, everyone in the neighborhood awoke one morning to find the truck and its green waste gone. It was all a mystery to me. One thing is certain, though. I would have been most unhappy if that ugly truck had become a more or less permanent part of the neighborhood.
I want government to take the plague of abandoned vehicles seriously. I’m sure most Fresnans feel the same way.
Which brings us to two final points.
Estabrooke said he and Council President Paul Caprioglio are working on an update to the 12-year-old abandoned vehicle ordinance. Exactly how the law will be reformed remains to be seen. One possible change: Stiffer penalties on owners of vehicles abandoned on a public street.
And my personal experience with what turned out to be the perpetually moving semi-abandoned Ford suggests that this issue is a perfect opportunity for a city-county cooperative agreement. Why not have one jurisdiction handle abandoned vehicles in both the city and the county islands? That would make things easier for residents and, with some wise thinking, free up CHP officers for the difficult work they were trained to do.
FresGO is a heck of a service. Seems like City Hall, with some help on funding, would be the wise choice.
Said Estabrooke: “I’d jump on that.”