All things considered, Barbara Ojena would rather be enjoying the summer in her old Nipomo digs instead of riding out August in the triple-digit desert heat of Palm Springs, where she is staying with her daughter.
But things didn’t work out that way. Her former house on Sandydale Drive is vacant, the granny unit that once sat on the property is being bulldozed, and a mobile home is long gone.
Why did Ojena have to abandon her home of 16 years, which, by the way, she had fixed up? I’m trying to think of a word that would sum it up — she was bureaucratized? County codified? Terminally planned?
Well, to state it more directly — Ojena had to leave because she could not afford to bring her property in Nipomo up to code.
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The thing is, she didn’t know when she bought it 16 years ago that it wasn’t up to code.
Her story is a frustrating one and it makes me wonder how many others have faced similar fates.
Ojena and her husband bought the Sandydale Drive property, including the mobile home and granny unit, in 1995.
She says her real estate agent told her at the time that the various structures, including the mobile home and granny unit, were on the property legally. They had been in existence for 12 years and were “grandfathered,” she says she was told.
Various friends stayed in the granny unit over the years and in 2006, Ojena moved in her 95-year-old father. He died in 2009.
Sometime last year “a disgruntled family member” called the county and told officials about the granny unit which, this family member said, was “illegal.”
As anyone who has followed the saga of Dan DeVaul and his high-visibility battle with the county code enforcement people knows, the one thing you don’t want as a homeowner is to have the county bureaucracy made aware of your existence.
They have codes to enforce, rules and regulations to implement, planning requirements to justify.
Lots of folks have out-of-compliance structures and vehicles on their property, but they are in out-of-the-way places and escape notice.
Ojena was not so lucky. When the county got the complaint it investigated, as it must, and told her to ditch the mobile home and get a permit for the granny unit.
How does one make a granny unit suitable for a permit? Ojena said the county told her that she needed architectural plans, a land-use permit, a construction permit and “permission of the neighbors because the granny unit was more than 50 feet from the main house.”
“We calculated thousands of dollars in expense to ‘permit’ a little house that by this time had been there for 28 years,” Ojena told The Tribune.
They couldn’t bankroll it, so they left.
But, I asked her, didn’t the county try to find a solution that would let you keep your place?
“They said ‘We’ll work with you,’ ” she said. “Those were words; there wasn’t any action.”
The county planners most involved with the Ojena case bristled at that charge.
“All of their calls were returned,” said Matt Janssen. “I met with them twice and (fellow planner) Greg Camack five times.”
“We bent over backwards and sideways to make it work for them,” Janssen said.
Janssen said he even told the Ojenas how to get a permit.
He conceded that the cost ran into the thousands of dollars.
There is something awry about that perspective; a seeming lack of understanding on the part of planners that a few thousand dollars is a lot of money. Most folks, yours truly included, worry about spending a few bucks on groceries or gas.
Janssen took offense at any suggestion that he and his colleagues are somehow heartless. “I’m bending the rules every day so people don’t get evicted.”
And that’s exactly the dilemma: Planners are boxed in. Maybe they can bend the rules. But they can’t break them.
Planners have to deal with code violations legally. It would be an abuse of their professional responsibilities to just look the other way.
“It’s easy to blame government,” Janssen said.
But the Realtor also must bear some blame, he said.
“I hear that 20 times a year,” he said, referring to homeowners who say the person who sold them the home misled them.
He said some government jurisdictions require a permit search with the Planning Department before closing escrow.
“We don’t have a law like that.”
That would be one partial solution. Could there be others? Some way to soften the county codes, to lessen the harshness? A poverty exemption? Something?
There must be some way to avoid driving folks like the Ojenas out of the county. If there isn’t, what good are governments and their rules and regulations?
“Isn’t it sad that to ‘permit’ a property 28 years in existence costs thousands of dollars more than to destroy it?” Ojena asked.
“This is your county at work,” she wrote in a letter to The Tribune. “Maybe some changes would be in order.”
Reach Bob Cuddy at email@example.com