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City halts code crackdown amid complaints from Saugus neighborhood

Bonelli tract residents win temporary stay from 'Extreme Neighborhood Makeover'

Posted: October 27, 2009 10:13 p.m.
Updated: October 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.
City officials this week put a code enforcement crackdown on hold after a group of residents in one of the Santa Clarita Valley's oldest neighborhoods came out in force against it.

The announcement came at an contentious meeting Monday night at Santa Clarita Elementary School, where about 100 angry residents from the Bonelli tract in Saugus confronted city officials with complaints about its award-winning neighborhood cleanup program.

The residents welcomed the news that code enforcement officers would no longer be scrutinizing their homes and proactively issuing citations, instead only responding to complaints. But tract inhabitants reserved the bulk of their applause for their neighbors, who yelled at city officials to "Leave us alone!" and "Go away!"

The meeting came after the city disturbed a proverbial hornet's nest by aggressively citing residents in the old neighborhood in an effort to make it look nicer from the streets as part of Santa Clarita's Extreme Neighborhood Makeover program.

Residents, however, complained that the Saugus-area neighborhood predates the city and its community standards rules by about 30 years.

"We never had a problem until the city came in with this neighborhood makeover stuff," said Bonelli tract resident Phil Letzo, 61.

Tract targeted for makeover

The idea behind the city's Extreme Neighborhood Makeover program is to improve neighborhood curb appeal with help from the community.

The renewal process begins with a neighborhood block party, where city officials give residents a heads-up on the increased code enforcement. The program has won a statewide code-enforcement association award for innovation.

For more than a year before officials went to work on the Bonelli tract, they had been trying to improve other old communities in Canyon Country and Newhall. Those makeovers were well-received by their communities, city officials have said.

The Bonelli tract on Seco Canyon Road was built in the 1950s and uses different housing codes than the rest of the city, said Paul Brotzman, the city's director of community development. Some of the driveways in the tract are wider than the city code allows, accommodating homes that rest on lots at unique angles.

The plan for the tract was to work with residents to clean up the neighborhood and come into compliance with city code. The city tried to make it a team effort, throwing a kickoff block party, complete with door prizes.

But some residents said the code enforcement officers have been too aggressive and the city has been too strict.

Residents complain

Letzo, for instance, said he received citations from the city telling him to fix his brown lawn and take on several other costly projects to make his old home look nicer from the street.

But he said he had trouble coming up with the money to do all the work - he paid $5,000 to fix the lawn, and then had to pay $11,000 for his recently deceased mother's funeral. And when he asked the city for an extension, he said, officials gave him 15 days.

Letzo cried as he told that story to the City Council at a meeting earlier this month.

Another consistent complaint from residents has been that preservation officers have been rude and intrusive in the community.
Neighbor John Mojica, 63, said city officials have been pestering him and others for months. He said he has spent more than $10,000 fixing the outside of his home.

City officials "were nitpicking," Mojica said. "People caught them looking over fences and taking pictures."

At the meeting, Assistant City Manager Ken Striplin informed the crowd that all violations in the tract, written during proactive enforcement, had been put on hold until the city resolved resident's issues with the community preservation program.

City offers solutions

One solution to enforcement problems proposed by the city, and supported by those in attendance, included making the tract a special standards district, which would amend code recognizing unique characteristics of the tract as legal, Brotzman said.

Historic areas in Placerita Canyon and Sand Canyon are the only two special districts in the city, he said. Happy Valley is currently trying to get special district recognition.

Another solution proposed at the meeting was to grandfather existing residences, which would make homes that met old code standards legal, Brotzman said.

Some of the loudest cheers at Monday night's meeting came for Assistant City Manager Ken Striplin - after he said there were no plans to do proactive enforcement in any other neighborhoods in the city.


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