Code enforcement crew pinched

Official: Department is ‘reactive’ to people’s complaints

Local communities like La Jolla are largely on their own when it comes to enforcing many neighborhood code compliance issues.

That was the message Bob Vacchi, director of the city’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Department, delivered recently to the La Jolla Planned District Ordinance Committee as he made the rounds of community advisory groups throughout the city.

His visit prompted at least two Town Council members to step up with ideas: spend some effort informing the community about the rules and get businesses to police themselves.

Noting the city’s ongoing fiscal crisis and personnel shortages, Vacchi said that over the last three years, his department budget has been trimmed by about $1 million, to $6 million. On top of that, his staff — responsible for enforcing building, housing, land development and zoning throughout the entire city as well as removing graffiti — has lost eight or more positions.

The cuts leave the department with the equivalent of 58 full-time employees, 34 field inspectors and four utility workers to remove graffiti.

“We are reactive, operating on a complaint-only basis,” Vacchi said, noting that complaint-driven compliance gets results.

A recent case in point, he said, involved Rigoberto’s Mexican restaurant, which recently took over for Taco Bell at 7345 La Jolla Blvd. After neighbors complained to code enforcement that the establishment was operating 24 hours a day and that its exterior coloration violated the community’s Planned District Ordinance, the city issued owners a warning and they repainted their facility and changed operating hours.

Vacchi said code compliance responds to complaints on a prioritized basis.

“We’re set up to handle immediate health and safety — live electrical wires, unstable buildings — and environmental protection — leaking sewage, grading on coastal bluffs — as a first priority,” he said, adding that “serious” code violations such as disabled access, encroachment in the public right-of-way and unpermitted grading or demolition come next, followed by low-priority minor violations.

In La Jolla in 2009, there were 173 cases of neighborhood code compliance opened compared with 5,539 citywide. La Jolla’s open cases included 38 residential building and housing code issues, 23 zoning code issues, 10 right-of-way encroachments, 14 news racks, 24 sign cases and 23 noise cases.

La Jolla Town Council President Earl VanInwegen said there are numerous instances of sign and frontage standards being violated by Village businesses and that the time has come to do something about it.

“If we get Promote La Jolla resurrected and somehow hooked together with the Town Council, maybe we can implement some kind of voluntary process, if nothing else go to people and in a nice way say that they’re in violation,” he said.

“Maybe we ought to get the code out and publish it so that everyone knows what it is,” he added. “We’re (Town Council’s) going to take that on as a challenge: Get that out in some way, shape or form.”

Glen Rasmussen, chairman of the Streetscape/Design Committee, a joint committee of Promote La Jolla and the Town Council, said A-frame sidewalk signs are a low priority for city staff but a high-priority for La Jollans who’ve watched them proliferate for years.

“Our Planned District Ordinance prohibits those in the business improvement district (the 30-block Village area), but the city’s been reluctant in these difficult economic times to tell merchants they ought not to do those kinds of things,” he said. “But there are safety issues involved,” he added, noting that someone could trip over them and sue.

Rasmussen offered a simple, common-sense solution for what needs to be done to address signage and related issues: “Businesses really need to self-police themselves. Someone has to approach them and tell them it’s illegal — and hope they don’t have to take the next step.”