The Civil Liberties Monitoring Project (CLMP) was founded 1983 in Miranda, Humboldt County, California. We have preserved here an archive of the website.

CLMP covers only issues specific to our local area on California’s North Coast.

Code Enforcement Task Force – October 2008

Task Force Report Just the Beginning
by Task Force member, Liz Davidson

On Tuesday October 14, 2008 the Board of Supervisors will receive the report and recommendations of the Code Enforcement Task Force. The report includes unanimous recommendations for reform, supervision, and improvement of the Code Enforcement Unit. Other issues went well beyond the series of drug raids run under pretext no-notice building inspection warrants that precipitated public outcry. The report examines shortcomings in County policies and suggests first steps toward code reform, as well as land use clarification, measures to enable affordable housing, and amnesty and clean slate programs. Each Task Force member also submitted an individual report of specific findings and recommendations, reviewed and critiqued by the group, compiling a diversity of views on the many issues surrounding codes and code enforcement.

The code enforcement raids touched a nerve that wasn’t about marijuana growing. People turned out in huge numbers at the April 4 meeting in Garberville and April 8 in Eureka because so many of us in all walks of life are de facto code violators. We built or remodeled outside the permitting process, willfully or out of ignorance. We purchased or inherited unpermitted homes or parcels with unsettled legal status. We were aided and abetted by a County that frequently seemed happy to ignore rural builders, or we were denied permits by impractical applications of health codes. After the southern Humboldt drug raids and publication of the Yee Haw story in the last week of February, many citizens suddenly felt vulnerable to capricious code enforcement. The nerve the code enforcement issue touched was the absolute human right, and need, to feel secure in one’s home.

April was not the first time people raised a ruckus over code enforcement and building rights, nor is our Task Force the first group to make recommendations for comprehensive reform. In 1988 the Planning Commission heard from 4500 citizens in sixteen hours of highly charged testimony on problems with code enforcement. My individual findings and recommendations examine our forgotten history of housing and code reform. Two California Attorney General Opinions, Grand Jury reports from the 1970s and 1980s, General Plan Housing Element policies, and a Planning Commission recommendation presided over by a future Superior Court judge all argued collectively for the creative and judicious use of discretion in the health and building code. They advised the County to recognize on-the-ground realities that affect individual decisions on how to build, for the rights of individuals to engage in do-it-yourself home improvements without penalty, and for amnesty and recognition of all existing homes subject to safety inspections and not onerous and ever-evolving code requirements. Scores of recommendations for problem-solving reform in Humboldt County were made twenty and thirty years ago – many were even passed into law, but were never enforced as policy by the Supervisors nor turned into procedures by the planning, building, and environmental health departments.

My colleague on the Task Force, Dan Taranto, politely calls this ‘an institutional memory loss’ by county staff and the Board of Supervisors. Other veterans of the United Stand housing rights movement of the 70s and 80s call it a culture war. I agree, but I don’t see the memory loss as limited to the county’s side. As a relative newcomer to southern Humboldt, my initial knowledge of rural building requirements was formed by conventional wisdom and hand-me-down community knowledge, even information from realtors, much of which, as it turned out, was misinformed, incorrect, or distorted.

Humboldt County has a serious problem – thousands of people own and pay taxes on parcels they do not know are illegal, and the County has made no progress in helping these property owners to clear their titles. Humboldt has unknown thousands of homes throughout the county that were built or remodeled, for whatever reason, outside the permitting process. All parties participated in creating this muddle. It’s well past time for a clean slate grandfathering and amnesty program – a solution recommended by both the County’s Grand Jury and Planning Commission in 1988.

The county says it will not bulldoze anyone’s home. But the County process for coming into legal compliance can in practice be a financial bulldozer. This too needs to be reformed, if not replaced by an amnesty. For instance, to bring a 35-year-old home into compliance you must upgrade it to 2008 code. If you bought what you thought was an affordable fixer upper, you are in for a rude shock. If you built without permits twenty years ago, but built to code, that code will not apply now, despite the fact that the Planning Commission specifically advised against retroactive application of new codes twenty years ago. The water-intensive sanitation/septic codes that the County mandates are desperately outdated in a time of progressive green building, increasing shortages of water, and the unpredictable outcomes of climate change. We have to sensibly revise what is demanded in order to gain widespread voluntary compliance.

But what will we give in return? Our cumulative ignorance and misbehavior has its own impact. Each individual home – the safe shelters in which people live and raise their families – isn’t likely to cause any problem. But what are the impacts of all our homes on the landscape level? Our eroding roads and water diversions are the real health and safety issues. Just look at the plight of the Mattole and the South Fork Eel. Can we refocus the conversation to watershed-level problem solving, rather than onerous health regulations that mandate water-wasting septic over waterless sanitation and graywater recycling? Can we call for detente in the culture war, drop the blame over things that happened twenty and forty years ago, focus on true health and safety rather than abstract codes, and create positive, user-friendly solutions?

Can both sides–we as a community and as a government of the people and for the people–address the greater issues of environmentally sensitive development and watershed health, affordable housing, and the fact that owner-built homes are and always have been a part of the housing solution?

Now is not the time to repeat old conversations. Now is the time to enact the reforms recommended twenty years ago during the last huge uprising against code enforcement, and solve the problems. Twenty years of County and citizens mutually ignoring the problem have only made things worse. Doing nothing now will only increase the numbers of the non-compliant, and guarantee another round of code enforcement abuse and resistance when the memories of this year’s events and efforts fade.

Liz Davidson is a freelance writer and editor living in southern Humboldt who served on the Code Enforcement Task Force.