Code enforcement to be toughened with fines for oft offenders

April 27, 2023|City of Orange, FEATURED

Orange resident Laurie Cesina has been reporting building code violations to the city for years. This 2,400-sq.-ft. structure is just 28 inches from her property line (fence) and was recently modified with a 30-ft.-tall roof. The building was apparently permitted many years ago, but has since been enlarged and structurally changed without permits. Code enforcement, according to Cesina, has done nothing and, she says, her property value has suffered.

The Orange City Council agreed to enact an ordinance to levy administrative fines on repeat municipal code violators, April 11, but not without pushback from several council members.

Orange is the only city in the county that does not impose fines for code infractions. To date, the city has depended on voluntary compliance. Failing that, the city was compelled to file misdemeanor charges in court. Criminal prosecution is not only costly, but a fairly draconian response to such minor violations as overgrown vegetation, leaving trash cans out or making too much noise.

A fine structure would give more backbone to code enforcement for violations ranging from the mundane to building requirements, electrical and plumbing infractions and street vendors. Fines could be levied by the city departments responsible for various sections of the municipal code, i.e., police, fire, public works and finance.

Fines would, however, remain the big gun in the arsenal. Rafael Perez, code enforcement supervisor, assured the council that violators would be given warnings and opportunities to comply before a fine is issued. Even after repeated warnings, fines would be discretionary, applied mainly to repeat offenders.

Several public commenters at the meeting applauded the council for “doing something about the people who continue to abuse the city and their neighbors.”

Councilman Jon Dumitru, however, had concerns about the ordinance. He said the recommended fine of $85 was too high, and that an appeal was possible only after the fine was paid. “You can’t get a hearing until after you pay the fine, and that creates a financial hardship for some people,” he said. “You should not have to pay for justice.”

Fix it first

Denis Bilodeau agreed, insisting that “we have to make it clear that people will get a warning first and a chance to fix the problem. “You shouldn’t have to pay the fine first,” he said. He also wanted clarification on who would hear an appeal. It can’t be a city employee, he insisted, “we need to get a company with the right credentials to serve as a hearing officer.”

Both councilmen recommended the language in the ordinance be changed before approval.

Mayor Dan Slater said he wanted to move forward on the ordinance because it is “important to the community.” Mayor Pro Tem Arianna Barrios, who has made code enforcement a priority, also suggested that the council move forward with the way the existing ordnance is written to give staff “the tools they need tonight.”

Perez reinforced the provision that code violation warnings always come first. “We receive a complaint; an officer is assigned to investigate, then notice is given. More egregious violations require a written notice; enforcement does not occur until after that.”

Dumitru stressed that since various city employees will be authorized to issue administrative fines, he wanted to see specific language about the scope of duties in the ordinance. “I don’t want lifeguards issuing building citations,” he said. He also reiterated that a fine of any amount would be a hardship for low-income residents, and that an appeal should be allowed before payment.

Slater countered the $85 levy with $50.

“There should be some cost,” City Manager Tom Kisela pointed out. “People will appeal just because they can, and hearings cost the city.”

The council agreed to bring back the ordinance with revised language at a future meeting