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Making the Neighbors Toe the Line : Property rights: Fed up with trash, clutter and noise, many communities are cracking down on residential eyesores.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are the people next door. The folks who have become the nightmare of the neighborhood.

They park on lawns, trash their yards and let their house paint peel. They fix cars on their driveways and patch broken windows with pieces of wood.

Their roosters crow at dawn. Their houses are the ultimate in deferred maintenance.

And they don’t much care what anyone thinks about it.

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Throughout Ventura County, however, the official view of their casual approach to property maintenance is changing fast.

And the live-and-let-live approach of Ventura County’s rural past now stands in jeopardy as many increasingly urban communities undertake revisions in the standards of what they will put up with--and what they won’t.

Since the 1970s, new planned communities have imposed long lists of covenants and restrictions on home buyers to protect property values. No clotheslines. No TV antennas. No RVs. No landscape changes without permission.

Over the last two years, most local cities either have enacted strict laws that declare unkempt property an illegal nuisance, or they plan to consider such ordinances in 1992.

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Camarillo and Thousand Oaks, for example, have tightened their rules significantly since 1989.

Camarillo discovered its legal shortcomings when trying to force an elderly woman to clean tons of trash out of her duplex three years ago. Thousand Oaks strengthened its laws when faced with residents who seemed incapable of parting with any acquisition--and who would store their tacky collections in their front yards.

“One guy is a pack rat who accumulates things because he’s got a use for it next week, next month, next year or sometime in his lifetime, perhaps,” said Don LaVoie, code enforcement supervisor for Thousand Oaks.

Under a new ordinance, the man--Adolph Leben, whom neighbors describe as a kindly eccentric--has been jailed twice and his yard is now trash free, LaVoie said. The city has placed a lien on his property to recover $15,000 in cleanup costs.

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Thousand Oaks, which with Port Hueneme has the county’s strictest nuisance codes, oversees everything from landscaping and tree pruning to the color of buildings: earth tones are acceptable and, in a concession to changing tastes, the city next year will consider pastels for building trim.

Ventura, Oxnard, Fillmore and Ojai all expect to ponder tighter property-maintenance laws in the months ahead.

Ventura has the loosest rules of any large city in the county, allowing residents to store possessions in their front yards and to park cars on their lawns.

Ventura planners, responding to numerous citizen complaints, have been struggling to write new codes since 1987. A set of options is expected to go to the City Council in February.

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“We’ve been trying to pursue a course that is middle of the road,” planner Karen Bates said. “We’ll give them some ideas, (but) they’ll have to wrestle with this alligator.”

Nuisance ordinances are designed to preserve property values by assuring the coherence of communities. Port Hueneme bans conditions that are “so out of harmony or conformity with . . . adjacent properties as to cause substantial diminution of the enjoyment, use or property values” of neighboring owners.

“What this really comes down to is being a good neighbor,” said Thousand Oaks Deputy City Atty. Nancy Schreiner. She prosecutes about 40 bad neighbors a year on criminal misdemeanor charges. Hundreds of others respond when first notified, she said.

By pitting individual property rights against the public’s right to a well-kept community, the new laws reflect a conflict repeated in court cases throughout the nation.

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At least two U.S. Supreme Court cases have upheld the right of cities to specify how yards and buildings should be maintained. The high court said in a 1989 Los Angeles case that city government “may legitimately exercise its police powers to enhance aesthetic values.” A 1984 case established cities’ right to protect “aesthetic as well as monetary” values.

“You don’t have a constitutional right to have a house that is peeling paint,” Schreiner said. Nuisance codes are legal as long as they allow owners a reasonable use of their property, she said.

Ventura County already has had its share of celebrated property-rights cases.

County officials sued a Ventu Park property owner who had spent decades building his dream house in fits and starts. His property was finally cleared as a fire hazard in 1990 just after the man died.

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In Camarillo, the sad story of aging widow Kelton Roberts made national news in 1989. The woman, a former member of the Camarillo Beautiful committee, was left homeless after the city condemned her duplex and hauled 100 tons of fetid rubbish off her property.

Today, Camarillo’s new ordinance allows the city to abate any problem that diminishes property values. But officials said the city does not pressure owners about peeling paint and overgrown landscaping.

“It’s broad enough to cover virtually anything,” City Manager William Little said. “But we are very judicious in what we go up against.”

Thousand Oaks regularly makes news because of its no-nonsense approach to property maintenance and zoning regulation. This year alone, it has directed Robert D. Nesen to paint his new auto dealership off-white instead of white. And it has ordered a Westlake couple to remove a satellite dish camouflaged as a patio umbrella.

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Nesen, a former U.S. ambassador, said he had less trouble negotiating agreements between nations than dealing with Thousand Oaks officials.

“I’ve been around the block, and I’ve never seen such a stupid bunch of bureaucrats.”

In a compromise, he finally was allowed to keep most of his building white.

Officials say they don’t go looking for problems; the problems come to them through the complaints of irate neighbors.

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“A good many complaints are attempts to use government to club their neighbors over the head,” said Todd Collart, chief zoning enforcement officer for the unincorporated areas of Ventura County.

One man complained that his neighbor had a rooster in the wrong zone, even though the rooster’s vocal cords had been removed to prevent complaints, Collart said.

Citizen protests have been the catalyst for nearly all new nuisance laws in local cities, officials said.

Neighbors have complained for years about the crumbling stucco on Ahmad (Andy) Atighi’s two-story apartment house in Oxnard Shores, officials said. And the city is now writing a new ordinance to address the problem.

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Just one lot away from the ocean, Atighi’s seven apartments rent for between $550 and $725 a month, cheap considering the ocean views, tenants said.

But Atighi has done little to maintain the apartments’ exterior, said neighbors and city officials. Large swaths of stucco have fallen away and parts of the iron staircase supports are nearly rusted through. City officials said they have not been able to force improvements because the conditions are not hazardous.

One neighbor called the property a “scabrous thing.” Two others said they offered to paint the apartments for free, but Atighi turned them down.

“I’ve offered to buy it from him at least three times, and he’s brushed me off,” neighbor David Greenstate said.

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City Hall’s response is preparation of a new law that will deal with chronic property-maintenance problems, Community Development Director Richard Maggio said.

“That’s probably the best example of where a property stands out from the rest of the community,” he said. “There have been City Council inquiries on it, for sure.”

Atighi declined comment except to say that he just hasn’t had time to fix up the apartments. Records show he has owned them since 1975.

Two miles inland from Atighi’s apartments, in a neighborhood of small, middle-class homes, lives John Korsten--"Junky John” to neighbors, but “the human backhoe” to himself.

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Korsten, a 44-year-old laborer, stores three dilapidated cars and three aging trucks in his back yard or on the street. And his property was cleaned up by the city just last summer.

“The guy had 80 lawn mowers or edgers over there,” said Richard McIntosh, Oxnard’s code enforcement official. “He had hundreds of bicycles and their parts, hundreds of shock absorbers, scores of old used tires, thousands of hubcaps and various other stuff.

“It’s hard to imagine,” said McIntosh, who has skirmished with Korsten since 1986, “why anyone with a valuable property would let it look that way.”

Korsten, a former state parks maintenance man who is out of work, said he is a victim of city harassment and of neighbors who should mind their own business.

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“I’m getting ripped off and screwed around,” he said. “The city should leave me alone. . . . There ain’t no junk back there. I go to swap meets.”

Korsten has collected the world’s throwaways for 30 years, he said. That’s how he paid for insurance so he could play football at Camarillo High School in 1963, he said.

Now the city “steals my stuff,” he said. He fills the cars with trash so no one will know that he keeps valuable equipment in them, he said.

Neighbors say it’s good that the city has cleaned up Korsten’s place. But some say he’s a good neighbor.

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“He helps a lot of people,” said neighbor Patricia Hawkins. “He mows some people’s lawns just because he’s nice.”

In several Ventura County communities--Fillmore, Santa Paula and Oak View among them--residents still generally have the right to keep their property as they wish as long as it is not a fire or health hazard.

“We don’t regulate eyesores. We’re not the aesthetics police,” said county planner Collart. “We’re in a country where we try to preserve people’s individual rights.”

But new standards of property maintenance are being considered even in cities that have long resisted them.

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In Ojai, a city of stringent controls in other areas, officials are writing codes to outlaw lawn parking and shade-tree mechanics--and to limit the number of cars in front of a house.

“We’re extremely protective of property owners’ rights,” code enforcement officer Elaine Willman said. “But citizens have been complaining recently about the number of vehicles in the front yards. If you get more than five, it really distracts from the property.”

She receives about 300 complaints a year about nuisances such as junk cars, messy yards, barking dogs and noisy roosters, Willman said.

“The irony is that city folks move to the country ambience and then can’t bear the roosters,” she said.

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Even in Fillmore, probably the county’s most politically conservative community, a committee began meeting this month to decide whether the city should adopt a law that keeps cars off lawns and yard storage out of sight.

The same idea emerged two years ago, said City Manager Roy Payne, but when the City Council got a look at the model ordinance from Port Hueneme, it dropped the idea.

“I’m still not convinced that they are interested in a heavy-handed approach to property maintenance,” Payne said. “They’ve indicated they’re not interested in anything where the city would require people to paint their houses or mow their lawns. The concern for individual rights is the prevailing attitude with the community.”

Port Hueneme was a county pioneer when it adopted its tight standards for property maintenance in 1978. Officials said they feared for the future of the 100-year-old city, where many structures were in decay.

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“We realized that if a strategic effort wasn’t made to upgrade this property, it would become a slum,” City Manager Richard Velthoen said.

Using federal grants, the city offered low-interest loans for property rehabilitation and reimbursed owners for materials to paint their houses.

“The loans were the carrot,” Velthoen said, “the property maintenance ordinance was the stick. When a house needs painting, we will deal with that.”

As with most local cities, Port Hueneme tries to gain cooperation without filing a complaint in Municipal Court, a final step that usually comes only after two warnings. The small city has no full-time attorney, and legal action is expensive, said Tamah Berger, the city’s enforcement officer.

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“So I phone people up and say, ‘There’s a problem here. Can we talk?’ ” Berger said. “But there’s nothing low-level about our pressure. The threat of taking it to court is always there.”

Simi Valley has no all-encompassing maintenance ordinance and uses instead a variety of zoning, planning and health codes. Last week, for example, it mailed 565 warning letters as part of a trash and junk-car abatement program, spokeswoman Jocelyn Reed said.

“We gain about 95% compliance on the first notice,” Reed said. “We’ll have to prosecute maybe 1%.”

Simi Valley is among the leaders countywide in clearing graffiti. The city responded to an increase last year with a law requiring property owners to remove the scrawls within 10 days. If residents can’t afford the work, city crews will do it, Reed said.

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Moorpark generally uses the same standards as Ventura County, enforcing zoning and environmental safety laws but cracking down on aesthetics only in extreme cases.

“If the paint is coming off and the windows are broken and the porch is falling down and there’s trash on the front lawn, we’ll go after it as a public nuisance,” enforcement officer Frank Macino said.

Santa Paula officials said they just don’t have the time or the manpower to worry about such luxuries as parking on lawns or shoddy maintenance.

“We have people living in garages, people living in storage sheds, electrical problems and overcrowding,” said Stephen Stuart, building and safety director. “Those types of issues are our concern.”

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