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San Diego investigating construction at house in La Jolla Heights

Construction at a property at 8289 La Jolla Scenic Drive North drew a civil penalty notice and stop-work order in April.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

A city of San Diego investigation is underway into whether unpermitted work is continuing at a house in La Jolla Heights despite a stop-work order issued for the property.

A civil penalty notice and order was issued April 27 indicating that the house at 8289 La Jolla Scenic Drive North had been partially demolished and was being reframed and that the project “includes possible modifications to plumbing and electrical systems.”

The homeowner has until Oct. 28 to obtain required permits and pass inspections or face fines.

Neighbor Angelina Reinecke said the work goes on for “10 hours a day, six days a week” and is “doubling the size of the existing house.”

Representatives of the project could not immediately be reached for comment.

Steve Hadley, representing the office of City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, told the La Jolla Community Planning Association during its meeting earlier this month that the work is unpermitted but he couldn’t provide additional details. He said city staff was prepared to contact the city attorney’s office to pursue appropriate consequences as part of the investigation.

That spurred a larger discussion about unpermitted work and how the city handles it. The discussion occurred during the public comment portion of the meeting, so LJCPA took no action.

LJCPA President Diane Kane said unpermitted work has persisted across the city, “particularly since COVID,” and asked whether the city “ever fines anyone for being out of compliance.” Hadley said it does, though he couldn’t say how often.

“When people are far outside the rules, they have to get the permits they are not obtaining upfront and face a lot of back and forth and hearings,” Hadley said.

A week after the meeting, a city audit was released that said code officers are slow to investigate many cases and to issue fines and other penalties that can be crucial to gaining compliance.

The city’s backlog of code enforcement cases approximately doubled between January 2018 and January 2021 — from 3,178 to 6,306, the audit found.

Some cases are active for more than 600 days without a written notice being issued to the property owner involved, and a significant percentage of active cases don’t get follow-up inspections, according to the report.

The audit also found that San Diego missed opportunities to receive more than $500,000 from property owners by not issuing required reinspection fees. And almost one-third of cases got no inspection at all.

Kane said the lag in enforcement is causing the city to “lose the trust … that consequences are suffered at bad behavior.” The community’s faith would improve, she said, if “there was some evidence that there was follow-up and consequences when they do what they want to do.”

Reinecke said she called the code enforcement division of the city Development Services Department about the neighboring house but is “losing a lot of confidence that anything will happen because nothing has happened with every complaint.”

If the construction proceeds as it has, “I will have no privacy in my backyard and my house will be devalued,” she said.

The audit blamed the code enforcement problems on excessive workloads for compliance officers, inaccuracies in how they collect and use data, and a failure by officers and their supervisors to effectively use case-management tools the city pays for.

San Diego spends dramatically less per resident on code compliance efforts than all other major cities in California, the audit found. San Diego spends $6.40 annually per resident, while Sacramento spends $22.80, Long Beach $16.80 and Los Angeles $16. ◆