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Gearing Up to Lower Boom on Illegal Construction

Times Staff Writer

‘It’s not always easy to walk onto someone’s private property and explain you’re there because somebody says they’re doing something wrong.’

Actor Sylvester Stallone, with Rambo-esque flair, built an eight-foot concrete wall topped with spikes. Jermaine Jackson of the famous singing Jacksons put up an ornate wrought-iron fence that soared 18 feet. Gilbert Garcetti, the chief deputy district attorney, erected a rounded, brick-and-redwood garage he cherished for its “architectural integrity.”

The neighbors were impressed but not pleased. What Stallone, Jackson and Garcetti considered home improvements, others considered eyesores--and possibly illegal at that.

When such disputes arise, people like David Keim go to work. Keim wears the badge of a Los Angeles city building inspector.

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“It’s not always easy to walk onto someone’s private property and explain you’re there because somebody says they’re doing something wrong,” Keim said. Some people “figure their home is their castle. Those are the toughest cases to deal with.”

Construction Crackdown

Just when it started to seem easy for a homeowner to bypass permit procedures for building a deck, bulldozing a slope or “bootlegging” a garage into a rental unit without the city’s permission, the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department is gearing up for a major expansion. The result will be a dragnet on dubious construction practices, officials say.

Crime-busting is the order of the day at City Hall, shown by the council’s recent decision to add 250 officers to the Los Angeles Police Department. But for many property owners, the planned “Neighborhood Inspection Program” could have a more tangible effect.

Under the program, 40 new inspectors will be hired by next spring, increasing the staff by about 60%. The two existing divisions of inspectors--one that oversees new construction, one to respond to complaints--will be combined into one unit. Ultimately, the city will be divided into 105 separate districts, each about four miles square, with an inspector assigned to each district. Inspectors are presently assigned to districts about eight or nine miles square.

Also, 18 new field offices will be opened. Inspectors will report to these offices, instead of City Hall, thus cutting down on driving time. The offices will also make it easier for property owners and contractors to apply for permits and air complaints, Building and Safety Department chief Frank Kroeger said.

The program, which is supported by both the City Council and Mayor Tom Bradley, is “a tremendous stride toward neighborhood preservation and the prevention of deterioration of the city’s buildings,” said Councilman Marvin Braude, chairman of the council’s Building and Safety Committee.

Overwhelmed by Growth

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The goal is to shore up a city agency that has been overwhelmed by the growth of Los Angeles. In the last five years, the number of building inspectors has dropped slightly. Meanwhile, there has been a 108% increase in residential complaints and a 29% increase in residential construction permits, according to city records.

On a given day, the city’s Building and Safety Department may receive between 75 and 100 complaints alleging code violations. “There’s been a growing amount of dissatisfaction in the community,” Kroeger said.

The backlog has resulted in a two-week lag between the filing of a complaint and a visit by an inspector, Kroeger said. Complaints that suggest imminent health hazards, such as abandoned buildings, receive same-day response, he said.

“As the city is getting more congested, there’s been more bootleg (unapproved) construction,” said John Kennedy, a senior inspector. “There are more code violations--people opening up businesses in their homes, even light manufacturing going on in garages.”

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The expanded program was tested in recent pilot projects in the west San Fernando Valley and the San Pedro and Eagle Rock areas and showed a vast improvement in efficiency, officials said.

Keim, who worked in the San Fernando Valley project at Councilwoman Joy Picus’ office during the experimental period, said, “I had a better feel for the community. . . . I felt like I had more control over my district. I live in Woodland Hills, and now I drive downtown, spend a couple of hours in the office, then drive out to my district.” Keim said it now takes at least half an hour to reach his first inspection, sometimes 45 minutes.

“But when I was in Picus’ office,” he said, “sometimes I was one minute from my first stop.”

Kennedy supervised an office of five inspectors in the Eagle Rock project, working from a field office of Councilman Richard Alatorre. Later, two bilingual inspectors were added because of the large number of Spanish-speaking residents.

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Politics Feared

Keim and Kennedy said they initially feared that council members and their staffs might try to unduly influence their work. “We had the fear going in, maybe we’d be overpowered,” Kennedy said.

But both said that the closer working relationship was never abused. Often, it proved to streamline the complaint process. “If somebody was calling in with a complaint, sometimes I’d just have them transfer them to me,” Kennedy said.

Each inspector will have considerable autonomy in his district, perhaps enhancing the possibility of corruption. Keim said it is not unusual for a property owner to offer payment to an inspector to look the other way when he sees a code violation. “Usually, it’s done in a joking manner,” he said.

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Councilman Braude, while hailing the Building Department’s reputation for integrity, said department heads will be held accountable for abuses.

Kroeger stressed that the inspectors, with smaller districts, will receive closer scrutiny from the general public, contractors and council staffs. Moreover, each field office will be staffed with an internal affairs investigator.

First-year start-up cost for the expansion is expected to run $500,000. Within a few years, the program is expected to pay for itself, officials say.

Officials expect that the tougher enforcement will make contractors and homeowners more conscientious about applying for permits and paying the requisite fees. The city also plans to increase the fines for recalcitrant property owners and contractors who violate city codes.

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Recovery of Costs

“We’re not looking at it as a fine per se. We’re looking at it as a recovery of our costs,” Kroeger said. “Right now if we go out on a complaint, we get nothing.

“If we find a violation, and we give the owner 30 days to correct it, and they don’t correct it--that’s where we want to institute fees for our services.” Those fees, Kroeger said, may run in the $85 to $95 range, added on to the cost of required permits.

Under the program, there would be no increase in the permit fees. Permits are required for all permanent construction, and such additions as a central air-conditioning or a new water heater. Code violations, meanwhile, include such concerns as autos parked in front yards and hedges that grow too high.

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Beyond the “fee recover” system, no major changes are expected in the appeals process, which can take weeks, months and even years to resolve.

In fact, the fates of Sylvester Stallone’s wall, Jermaine Jackson’s fence and Gilbert Garcetti’s garage, both in Brentwood, are still being adjudicated. The Jackson and Garcetti cases are before the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

Wary of city codes, Stallone applied for and received a zoning variance for his wall. Still, he is being challenged in court by his Pacific Palisades neighbors. The covenants in exclusive Riviera Estates where Stallone lives are stricter than the city’s codes.


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