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Simmering down our expectations of code enforcement, courtesy of a grass fire

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One of the most baffling pieces of property in Fresno has reinforced a hard fact of municipal governance.

Code enforcement is hard.

Michael Flores, the city’s administrative hearing officer, handed down last month a 12-page ruling involving a brush fire in east-central Fresno.

Flores’ conclusion was simple: The owner of a vacant field must reimburse the city for his share of the Fire Department’s cost for fighting the fire on June 22, 2016.

The city sought $6,849.32. Property owner Ted Price Jr., on behalf of T.N. Price & Associates, appealed. Pay up, Flores told Price in a decision dated Dec. 8.

Three things make this seemingly routine case interesting.

First, the site of the fire is the old Palm Lakes golf course on the north side of Fresno-Yosemite International Airport. Palm Lakes (as I’ll refer to the site) has bedeviled City Hall and the local development community for years. No one knows what do with the eyesore.

Second, Price wasn’t the only owner to have his property scorched by the fire. Three other owners had piece of the action. The owner with the biggest chunk of Palm Lakes is the old Fresno Redevelopment Agency, now called the Successor Agency. In other words, the same City Hall that operates the administrative hearing process and the Code Enforcement Division also owns much of the Palm Lakes dirt.

Third, the fire took off like a fleeing bandit, threatening to engulf huge apartment complexes to the north and east, because the site was full of tall dry weeds. City Hall hates vacant fields full of tall weeds on the second day of summer. That’s why the city has a weed abatement ordinance. That’s why the city has a Code Enforcement Division to enforce the ordinance. That’s why the city has a list of stiff fines for property owners who don’t disc their vacant fields every spring. But the Palm Lakes fire resulted in no fines, even though (as Flores’ decision makes clear) things could have turned into a human catastrophe.

All this no doubt has Summerset Village owner Chris Henry once again wondering why he’s singled out in the local mainstream media as “Slumlord Public Enemy No. 1.”

Let’s begin with Palm Lakes.

The old golf course is on Dakota Avenue. The airport is to the south. To the west is the curving street where Chestnut Avenue turns into Willow Avenue. Peach Avenue is to the east.

Palm Lakes in its beginning was a privately owned 18-hole golf course. I occasionally played there back in the day. The course fell on hard times financially, and the city bought it for $1 in the mid-1980s.

City Hall couldn’t keep the red ink at bay, either. The city closed the course in 2005.

City officials have talked up the property ever since. Palm Lakes was always on the verge of development greatness. All it needed was the right developer (i.e. one with deep pockets and a yen for immense risk) and the right idea.

Nothing ever came to pass, in part because the entire area bounded by Chestnut-Ashlan-Peach-Dakota is a hodge-podge of uses and property owners.

City Hall about three years ago finally found a buyer. The city’s stake in the Palm Lakes area was about 40 acres (the complete Palm Lakes footprint is bigger, but I don’t know how much bigger). The Great Recession was going full bore at the time. City officials were desperate to stave off bankruptcy. So, the city sold its Palm Lakes property to the Successor Agency.

The City Council is in charge of the Successor Agency.

The 40 acres were composed of three separate parcels. One of the parcels was 32.5 acres. The Successor Agency paid $1.45 million for it. That gives you a sense of City Hall’s return on its $1 investment. (I don’t know how much the Successor Agency paid for the other two parcels, totaling about eight acres. It’s probably safe to assume the price was in the same $44,600-per-acre range.)

City officials were happy as a clam. Tax increment that came out of the hide of Fresno County and special districts found its way to the city’s general fund in the nick of time.

The Successor Agency has been trying to sell the 40 acres ever since. Bottom line: You’d think the state of Palm Lakes, despite the jigsaw nature of the site’s ownership, would be of considerable ongoing interest to City Hall.

Apparently not.

According to testimony at Price’s Nov. 17 appeal hearing, Fresno Fire Department Engine No. 6 responded on June 22 to a blaze at Palm Lakes. Weeds, dry grass and trees were on fire. An engine from the Clovis Fire Department soon arrived to help.

Flores in his decision wrote that Fresno Fire Captain Tim Fulmer “testified that the fire was initially reported as a ‘small vegetation fire,’ but when he arrived at the scene he observed the fire was getting larger due to the large amount of overgrown vegetation.”

The fire quickly grew too big for two engines and two crews. In the end, Battalion Chief Kirk Wanless testified, a total of 22 crews and apparatus were involved. Perhaps as many as 75 firefighters fought the blaze at one time or another. Wanless said it took about nine hours to get total control of the fire.

The fire, stoked by fairly strong winds, jumped 30-foot-wide streets within the property. Flames came “very close” to nearby apartments, Flores wrote, but the buildings were never scorched.

The fire was so hot that radiant heat, not embers, set several trees ablaze on the other side of Dakota.

All’s well that ends well – thanks to Fresno’s superb Fire Department. The city in the wake of the fire went about recovering its expenses. City law authorizes this settling of accounts.

First, city officials computed the expenses – firefighters’ time, operation of equipment, etc. The next challenge was allocating the costs to various property owners. Deputy Fire Chief Ted Semonious decided on a 50-50 split – half to be paid by the Successor Agency, half to be covered by the site’s three private property owners (Price among them).

Price was the only property owner to appeal. He pitched several arguments to support his case. He said he should have to pay only $238 because that’s the amount charged in the Master Fee Schedule for an “open fire.”

A city official testified that the “open fire” in question is a controlled burn like a church bonfire that requires a permit and the presence of a single fire engine.

Flores in his decision quickly dispatched this part of Price’s argument.

But it’s clear from Flores’ decision that Price was on firmer ground when the argument moved to cause and notice.

Exactly how the fire started remained unknown as of the hearing, However, Flores wrote, Captain Fulmer testified “he believed that the fire started on property that did not belong to the Appellant.”

Fulmer added that the extent of dry vegetation on each owner’s property was essentially the same.

“Captain Fulmer then testified that had the owner of the property on which the fire started had properly maintained the weeds and grass and had removed all vegetation all the way to the ground, the fire may not have started, or it may not have spread,” Flores wrote.

Price claimed the fire started on Successor Agency property (which constitutes about two-thirds of the Palm Lakes area in question). He wasn’t the only person to think so. Flores wrote that a city official, in explaining the Fire Department’s thinking on the allocation of fire-fighting expenses, testified that the decision “was based upon the fact that the fire was believed to have started on the Successor Agency’s property, and the fact that the remaining property owners’ property was not maintained as required under the Fresno Municipal Code’s Weed Abatement Ordinance.”

Price said he thought he was being asked to pay too much of the Fire Department’s bill, and the Successor Agency wasn’t paying enough. Also, Flores wrote, Price “testified that the City never game him notice that there was a weed problem on his property.”

City officials testified that they did send an official “Weed Abatement Notice” to Price. However, Flores wrote, city officials at the hearing “did not submit a copy of the Inspection Notice sent to (the) Appellant….”

I sense Price’s appeal never really had much chance of success. His vacant property had tall weeds. It was summer. The city has a law prohibiting tall weeds on a vacant lot during the summer. The weeds caught fire. The Fire Department saved the day. Another city law says the Fire Department is to be reimbursed for expenses in such a situation.

“The potential consequences of a fire, especially one such as the fire occurring on June 22, 2016 which threatened numerous apartment units, could have been catastrophic,” Flores wrote. “Taking all these factors into account, the Hearing Officer believes the Appellant’s conduct did rise to the level that would be considered ‘serious negligence’ under” city code.

That’s Flores’ way of saying Price should have known better than to ignore the condition of his property. Flores confirmed the Fire Department’s demand that Price pay $6,849.32.

Flores and I discussed the Palm Lakes case last week in his office.

“What about the fines?” I said. “Surely the Successor Agency and the other property owners were hit with code enforcement fines for letting the weeds grow like that.”

Flores said he didn’t know about any fines. He said fines weren’t part of the appeal, and therefore were outside his jurisdiction in this particular case.

So, I asked Del Estabrooke, manager of the city’s Code Enforcement Division. Estrabrooke said city records show only one code enforcement action at Palm Lakes. It had to do with a homeless man living there a few years ago.

Apparently there were no fines levied against anyone at Palm Lakes for all those dry weeds.

The City Council in March 2016 adopted an ordinance for the annual weed abatement program. Owners of vacant lots (there are about 3,000 throughout Fresno) were to clear their properties of tall weeds, dry grass and trash by April 15. The city was to contact the property owners to tell them the rules. Starting on April 16, code inspectors were to begin looking for violators.

Fines could range from $200 to $800. The city would also recover costs if it had to abate the weeds.

“In order to establish the City-owned lots as an example for the public,” stated the March 3, 2016 staff report to the City Council, “inspections and cleanup of City-owned lots will begin prior to the deadline. Inspections of privately owned lots will begin after the deadline of April 16.”

So, near as I can tell, this is what happened:

  • Palm Lakes was full of tall dry weeds by late June; most of Palm Lakes is owned by the city’s Successor Agency
  • No one from the city inspected the Successor Agency’s Palm Lakes property
  • No one from the city inspected the privately-owned property next to the Successor Agency’s Palm Lakes property
  • The tall dry weeds on the Successor Agency’s Palm Lakes property caught fire on June 22
  • The fire spread throughout the Palm Lakes area;
  • The Fresno Fire Department fought the fire for nine hours, which could have led to “catastrophic” consequences had the flames reached apartment complexes on two sides of Palm Lakes
  • The administrative hearing officer said the owners who allowed weeds and dry vegetation to grow on the Palm Lakes parcels past the April 16 weed abatement deadline were guilty of “serious negligence” under the letter of the law
  • The property owners had to reimburse the Fresno Fire Department and its brave firefighters for spending most of a hot day nipping a potential humanitarian disaster in the bud
  • None of the property owners, including the city itself as the most prominent wrongdoer, ever faced a single cent in the way of city fines.

I’m not blaming the Code Enforcement Division. It’s my experience that Fresnans expect too much from code enforcement. We codify just about every aspect of civilized life, then expect a government official to enforce all the rules without making anyone angry.

I am saying, as I said at the start of my story, that code enforcement is hard. The Palm Lakes case suggests we should be careful throwing around the “slumlord” epithet.

Reality is complicated.

George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

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