WALNUT PARK : Cracking Down on Garage Conversions

The streets are so crowded that residents say guns have been used to decide arguments over parking spaces. And garages illegally converted to living spaces or businesses are being blamed for the congestion that is choking neighborliness out of the neighborhood.

Community leaders, pressed by residents to address the problems of this unincorporated county area, have come up with a plan: They have instructed residents to report suspected illegal garage conversions to them to be turned over to county officials for inspection. Community leaders have submitted more than 100 addresses since the program began about two months ago, and county officials so far have found violations at 75 sites.

When officials discover an illegal conversion, property owners are given 30 days to comply with county regulations. If owners do not comply, cases are referred to the district attorney's office and may result in a six-month jail term and $1,000 fine for each day of violation, said John Calas, a regional planning supervisor who oversees zoning enforcement for unincorporated areas.

Garage conversions were legal until the mid-1950s, Calas said, but requirements to provide off-street parking for tenants have made it nearly impossible to legally convert a garage to living quarters.

So far, two residents have been mistakenly turned in to county officials, said Mike Gomez, vice president of the Walnut Park Community and Merchants associations.

Gomez said he was uncomfortable with the plan and has urged the community to proceed cautiously: "We don't want neighbors turning in their neighbor because they don't like the way they look. But I don't know how we can control that. We tell them not to give us an address unless they are 100% sure."

But residents are eager to use the plan to prevent the deterioration that can accompany overcrowding, community leaders said.

Ron Barton, board chairman of the Walnut Park Community Assn., said residents are desperate and may not consider the consequences of their reports: "People have had it to the point that they're mad as hell. They're going to do something about it whether it's ratting on their neighbors or not."

If someone is mistakenly reported, Barton said, "there's no harm done." The end result, a less-crowded neighborhood, is worth the inconvenience, he said.

The program was implemented in September after an $18,000 fire in a garage that was reportedly used for living quarters. The owner was cited for violation of building, plumbing, mechanical, electrical and zoning codes and was instructed to remove an illegal portion of the garage that had been converted to a living area.

"We don't have an army of zoning enforcement officials looking for problems," Calas said. "We depend on residents' complaints." The county has nine zoning enforcement officials, and Calas has requested funding for additional personnel to address problems in Walnut Park.

Although it is difficult to judge the seriousness of the neighborhood's problem, the county has discovered "a fairly large number of violations for a community that size" as a result of the recent campaign, Calas said. "Through the years, garage conversions have been increasing slightly," said James Knowles, county zoning enforcement officer. "We could say it's the economy, but it could be greedy landlords, bigger families or whatever.

"We know how concerned the community is, and we follow up. The problem is, three, four, six months later, the violation crops up again."

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