By Clint Worthington
Contributing Editor Clint Worthington has lived in San Juan Capistrano for 28 years. He is a Board member of the Capistrano Taxpayers Association and for the past 21 years has been a volunteer firefighter with the Orange County Fire Authority serving the City of San Juan Capistrano. Following a 27-year career in the banking industry, he now enjoys his position as a locomotive engineer.
The lawsuit involving the Forster Mansion two years ago shed light on the problem of selective code enforcement in our town. After twenty-two Municipal Code violations, the City had still done nothing to enforce the law against the event promoter who leased the Forster Mansion. It was not until a lawsuit was filed against the City requiring them to follow their own laws that action was taken against the event promoter.
Prior to that lawsuit, community members questioned whether the City’s refusal to take action was because City Councilman Mark Nielsen was friends with the event promoter. Whatever the reason, it opened my eyes about selective code enforcement in our City.
Unfortunately, it continues to this day. Recently, the private Open Space Foundation (“OSF”) placed their banner at our publicly owned Northwest Open Space. When asked what rules allowed this private group’s banner to be hung on public property, City planner Bill Ramsey stated there were no rules for placing banners at open space and therefore the OSF did not need a sign permit.
Following the OSF’s lead, the Capistrano Common Sense (“CCS”) placed a similar but smaller banner in the same location. Within 24 hours CCS received a “Notice of Violation”. The stated reason was that the CCS did not have a sign permit.
The CCS then followed what appeared to be an arbitrarily concocted process that the OSF was not
required to follow. A Public Records Act request revealed that the OSF never applied for a sign
permit, nor had they been granted one. Even so, the CCS completed a sign permit application which
was immediately denied. When asked why, then-Development Services Director Grant Taylor stated the CCS needed to “obtain the property owners’ signature” on the application. When asked what the process was for obtaining the signature, Taylor refused to answer despite being asked repeatedly. So, the CCS appealed the decision.
What happened next might have been comical had it not been such a waste of taxpayer funds.
The CCS was told the hearing would be “informal”. Three CCS Editorial Board members attended (including myself). When we arrived at the Council Chambers, we were faced with a panel of four City employees and two outside attorneys hired by the City from the high-priced law firm Rutan & Tucker. They were seated on the city council dais and to the side. We three sat in the audience chairs. In what reminded me of a bad episode of “Law & Order”, the attorneys proceeded to grill the CCS Board members about why they placed the banner at the open space. City staff and the attorneys refused to answer questions from CCS Board members about why the OSF is given special treatment and is allowed to make their own rules while the City looks the other way.
Needless to say, the CCS was ultimately prohibited from hanging their banner. Meanwhile, the private OSF is not only allowed to hang their banners at two public parks (without permits), but they have now been granted permission to place a permanent sign with their name and logo at publicly-owned Reata Park.
Another example of selective enforcement is the Ecology Center (“EC”), located in the city-owned historic Congdon House on Alipaz. The City spent $500,000 to restore the historic home, then decided the best use of this taxpayer-owned property was to lease it to the EC for $35 per month for the first year, with incrementally higher (though still far under market rate) rent increases each year of its five-year lease. The EC was also granted a “Conditional Use Permit” (“CUP”) for events, with restrictions to protect the surrounding neighbors.
Unfortunately, the EC turned out to be a bad neighbor. The first code violation was the construction of a 13-foot tall “sculpture” made of plastic Sparkletts water jugs, built without a permit and in violation of the CUP. Despite numerous complaints, it was allowed to sit in the front yard for nearly two years before the City finally made them dismantle it.
The code and CUP violations continued, including;
- Amplified music.
- Painting of a 25-foot blue line on Alipaz leading to a drain cover, also painted blue.
- Weddings, in violation of the CUP and Alcohol and Beverage Control (ABC) agency laws.
- The sale of alcohol without a permit from either the City or ABC.
- Allowing a bee hive on the roof (bees do a tremendous amount of damage to wood structures; their honey can damage wood beyond repair).
- Storage of trucks and trailers on the property.
The EC’s lease is up for renewal soon. We’ll see how the council handles it.
In my opinion, this selective enforcement is just plain wrong. I am convinced a new council majority is the only way to change the entrenched and blatant discrimination we are seeing. I’m sure the many groups and businesses who have paid a price for not being in the favored inner circle will agree.
Have you experienced similar selective enforcement treatment by the City? If so, we want to hear from you! Please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may remain anonymous if you wish.