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Saugus residents protest city code

City 'Neighborhood Makeover' push gets pushback

Posted: October 17, 2009 8:04 p.m.
Updated: October 18, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Rob and Emmy Bonja play with their dog, Penny, under an awning that must be fixed. According to the city, the awning is too close to their neighbor's property line.

 
A fresh coat of paint, a new floor, a fresh-poured driveway — the list of improvements is one any homeowner would be proud to check off.

Ron and Emmy Bonja, both 63, of Saugus, had crossed off almost all the items on their repair list.

So they say they were surprised when, in early August, a Santa Clarita community preservation officer took pictures of their home and told them they had two code violations: an oversized driveway and an overhang on the side of their house that was too close to their neighbor’s home.

The Bonjas’ was one of 129 homes in the Bonelli tract area of Saugus that was inspected during a recent code-enforcement drive; 16 of those homes were cited.

Of those citations, seven cases were still active last week, when 20 to 25 Bonelli-tract residents surprised the Santa Clarita City Council with a flood of complaints about the inspections and the citations.

‘Just leave us alone’
“This isn’t a cookie-cutter development,” Emmy Bonja said during an interview at her home last week. “If you want to mess with it, you have to write different codes. I just want them to leave us alone.”

The Bridgeport Elementary School teacher said the city’s inspector told her she and her husband had to fix the code violations or face fines — or worse.

“He said eventually the city could just put a lien on our house if we didn’t comply,” Bonja said. “We didn’t have a way to pay for it.”

A lot of residents in the community are retired, living on fixed incomes, and can’t afford or perform the labor required to fix the violations cited by the city, Bonja said.

She said she and her neighbors tried contacting the city without success.

City hastens to respond
Mayor Frank Ferry, City Council members and City Manager Ken Pulskamp apologized to the residents for the frustration the program caused and promised to meet with members of the community.

Pulskamp said the city would not enforce citations for oversized driveways — one of the many complaints.

Dates for the meetings will be within the next couple of weeks, said city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz.

Bonja said she’s “guardedly optimistic” that the apology from the city is a sign the issue will be resolved quickly.

“The fact that we had that large a group come out made the difference,” she said of the residents who crowded City Council chambers Tuesday night. “When they saw a whole community upset and disappointed and thinking government is the enemy, it really moved them.”

Organized protest
Bonja’s daughter goes to school with the daughter of former Councilman TimBen Boydston, who helped organize the residents’ protest, Emmy Bonja said.

Boydston is seeking to regain a council seat in the April election.

Thirteen residents addressed the council about complaints about code enforcement and about a particular inspector, whom they said was rude.

The tract was built in the 1950s and laid out in an unorthodox way, with houses facing the street at different angles.

Several of the tract’s features, including the size and layout of driveways, are not consistent with the city’s building code.

Four years ago, Emmy Bonja said, inspectors had come to the couple’s house to authorize an addition, but they never mentioned parts of the house weren’t up to code.

The city begins actively enforcing codes after it receives several complaints about violations from residents in a community, said Paul Brotzman, the city’s director of community development.

The Bonelli tract was targeted by the city’s community preservation division several months ago.

Extreme makeovers
More than a year ago a Canyon Country neighborhood was similarly targeted as part of the city’s inaugural “Extreme Neighborhood Makeover.”

The plan was to work with residents to clean up neighborhoods while involving them in a neighborhood-wide effort that included a kickoff block party complete with door prizes.

Makeovers in Canyon Country and in Newhall were well received by their communities, city officials have said.

However, Al Ferdman, president of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee, said his area ran into some problems, as well.

Of 35 citations issued there, 19 are still active, he said.

The unique characteristics of Canyon Country didn’t fit well with the city’s code in much the same ways as the Bonelli tract, Ferdman said.

Keeping an open line of communication with City Hall, informing officials of concerns, helped it work, he said.

“The issue is that the code enforcement officers were looking in backyards and doing other things the neighborhood didn’t want,” Ferdman said.

Officers are able to cite homeowners for violations in homeowners’ backyards if they can see the violation from a public area or if they are invited onto a homeowner’s property, Brotzman said.

Community preservation officials’ work, including the Extreme Neighborhood Makeover, has been effective at improving curb appeal and been well received by residents, Ferdman said.

“The extreme makeover is very beneficial but needs to be handled with finesse,” he said. “We have discussed these issues with the city. It’s nothing they haven’t heard before.”

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