Citations against property owners weighed as tool

A move to empower some city workers to issue on-the-spot citations for violations such as failing to maintain a landscaped front yard could be a new weapon in getting property owners to adhere to city planning codes.

The Planning Department has no “effective means” to compel owners to correct violations, according to a legislative analyst report for the Board of Supervisors. Giving an enforcement team the power to issue citations, akin to how Muni inspectors issue tickets to fare evaders, could change all that.

The idea of having code enforcement planners issue citations has found support in the ranks of the Planning Department and among city supervisors.

Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval has drafted legislation, which he plans on introducing to the full Board of Supervisors in January, that would kick off the process of implementing the new kind of enforcement.

The Planning Department is expected to work out such details as how much the citations would cost violators and whether property owners would be granted a grace period to correct the violation. Ultimately, the citation plan would have to come before the Board of Supervisors for approval. Sandoval said that if all goes according to plan, city planners could begin issuing citations as early as this summer.

“In my part of San Francisco, you’ve got planning codes that are being broken,” said Sandoval, who represents District 11. In particular, Sandoval said, many property owners refuse to maintain a landscaped front yard, as required, and instead pave over it. Usually the motivation is to create room for parking. “We’re going to end up with a concrete wasteland,” Sandoval said.

“I would like to see the Planning Department issue citations on the spot,” Sandoval said, with planners leaving the citations in the property owners’ mailboxes. Sandoval suggests a citation of $500 for code violators.

Other common planning code violations include illegal changes of use and illegal advertising signs.

According to the Legislative Analyst Report, the only way the department can compel property owners to correct a violation is by withholding planning permits when that property owner needs one. Or the department could refer the case to the City Attorney’s Office to prosecute the property owner.

“Among the other priorities of the City Attorney’s Office, and given that the city attorney cannot recoup any of its costs for such prosecution, it rarely pursues Planning Code violations that do not pose immediate health or safety threats,” the report said.

Using the City Attorney’s Office to enforce planning code violations is too much of a “long, drawn-out process,” said Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who supported the idea of citations. “If you only need a pea-shooter, use a pea-shooter,” McGoldrick said.

jsabatini@examiner.com

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