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Calabasas delays action on disputed changes to building code

Angry homeowners in rural Calabasas persuaded city leaders early Thursday to delay approval of a strict new building code after charging that neither citizens nor the City Council itself had been given time to read the 134 pages of changes.

Residents of Old Topanga Canyon and other mountainous neighborhoods on the southern edge of the upscale town southwest of the San Fernando Valley are already at war with the city after a crackdown on reputedly leaky septic tanks triggered a flurry of citations for alleged zoning violations.

The beefed-up municipal code, developed by city staff, calls for property owners to obtain permits to “install, enlarge, alter, repair, remove, convert or replace any electrical, gas, mechanical or plumbing system component or device.”

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Those violating the new code would be guilty of a misdemeanor and face $1,000 fines or six months in jail. The city’s “building official” would have authority to cut off electricity and water to violators and revoke their occupancy permit.

Critics complained that if the codes were enforced literally, the city could prohibit homeowners from repairing a leaky faucet or changing burned-out light bulbs.

The modifications to the building code — which the state mandates that cities update every three years — were made public late Monday by Calabasas officials. Wednesday night, the City Council was asked to approve the changes immediately through an “urgency ordinance” so they could be in place Jan. 1.

In a five-hour session that dragged past midnight, two dozen residents argued that the ordinance be delayed until the proposed changes could be discussed and debated.

Councilman James Bozajian asked why the new rules had not been made public earlier. “This is not conducive to proper public input,” he said.

Councilwoman Mary Sue Maurer said she had been “inundated with e-mails” from residents who had not had time to study the proposed modifications. “I haven’t even read all of it,” she said.

Mayor Barry Groveman favored swift action, noting that he had “skimmed” the 134 pages of changes. An “urgency ordinance” requires at least four votes on the five-member council; a regular ordinance needs just three votes and requires two hearings.

Those critical of the toughened rules complained that there was no need for the city to rush things through because the current building code can remain in effect until it’s replaced.

The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which was embarrassed in July when the city ordered a pioneering Calabasas ranch family’s water turned off for alleged violations, sent an administrator to the meeting to protest.

“We don’t agree you have the authority to shut off water service,” said David Lippman, the agency’s facilities director.

Jody Thomas, president of Old Topanga Homeowners Inc., said she suspected the city was trying to cover itself by quickly approving the code modifications. She said July’s ranch raid was illegal because officials failed to properly file “findings” required by the state for new septic system rules before staging it.

City officials have denied that. And they blame the tardy public release of their new building code on Los Angeles County officials, saying the county failed to provide needed information until it “trickled in” during September and October.

“I don’t believe for a minute there’ll be chaos in the streets” if Calabasas officials take their time in approving the new building rules, said Dr. Scott Picker, an anesthesiologist who lives in the Dry Canyon-Cold Creek area. “I need two of you to vote ‘no’ tonight. We all do.”

Council members ended up taking no vote at all. They said that they will conduct a first vote on the proposed ordinance Nov. 24 and that the measure will come up for a second vote later — perhaps after the first of the year.

bob.pool@latimes.com


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