The Very Real Threat of Excessive County Fines and Code Enforcement

During these times of hardship, the Board of Supervisors (BOS) seems to be looking to code enforcement as a means of generating revenue for the County.

With tourism taxes, sales taxes, and development fees undoubtedly taking a hit during this pandemic, the Board has been attempting to enact new, restrictive ordinances that create more enforcement opportunities for the Community Development Agency (CDA) to go after code violations.

Do you feel comfortable knowing that the County is leaning into further policing administrative code violations?

Do you think this is the County’s best-case scenario for generating revenue?!

Me neither.

Earlier this year when I ran for District 1 Supervisor, I was concerned that the Code Compliance Division was violating your personal and property rights. I’m more concerned now than ever. In my January op-ed Coming to Your Property Soon – Drones and Code Compliance, I warned our community that the Program Manager for the Code Compliance Division was suggesting that the CDA be given the right to use drones for administrative code compliance (see slide 15 of his presentation: http://bit.ly/PDFcannabis-presentation).

This recommended amendment to Article 5 of Chapter II of Title 3 of the Nevada County Land Use and Development Code was proposed under the pretense that drones would only be used to regulate cannabis grows, but it had far-reaching powers and would pave the way forward for other ordinances that would allow drones to be used to seek out other types of code violations (http://bit.ly/SR-19-0851). We – the residents of Nevada County – need to understand that if/when an ordinance like this is enacted, the County can (and likely will) use similar mechanisms in other restrictive ordinances too (i.e. if the County starts using drones to enforce cannabis code violations, they are more likely to start using drones to enforce other types of code violations)!

While the recommended amendment hasn’t yet passed – which means the CDA currently cannot use drone surveillance for administrative code compliance – the funding for an Unmanned Aerial System program (aka Drone Surveillance) was recently included in the 2020-2021 budget. This undeniably means that Nevada County is planning to use drone surveillance to enforce code violations at some point during 2020-2021.

While the County continues to enact ordinances and set aside funding for these types of programs, and members of the Board simultaneously continue to deny their support of them, I suppose they’re seemingly hoping no one will be able to connect the dots to put a stop to this until it’s too late and the programs are already in motion.

Let’s fast forward to July 14, 2020. The Board passed SR 20-3256 to add code enforcement fines to property tax rolls in a meeting closed to public attendance. Did you hear about it? This ordinance was also written by the Program Manager of the Code Compliance Division and would also supposedly only relate to cannabis. Two weeks after it was passed, the BOS tasked CDA staff to write a new ordinance that repurposed the previously written measure and used the same basic mechanisms as SR 20-3256 to allow liens to be put on the property owners whose tenants were violating health codes (SR 20-3312, which is now being proposed as SR 20-3359; this is the urgency ordinance on COVID-19 enforcement). In short, the County used the mechanism of allowing liens to be put on property owners for unpaid fines in one ordinance and then duplicated that same mechanism in another ordinance two weeks later. That happened quick, huh?

This is a clear example of how – in just a few short weeks – the creation of one restrictive measure paved the way forward for another. It’s undoubtedly a slippery slope.

The Agency Director of the CDA, Sean Powers, plainly spoke to this in a recent interview on KVMR (see 11:35 of the Friday, August 7 KVMR Evening News with Paul Emery). At the beginning of the interview, Mr. Powers states that the County is hoping to “add another tool to the toolbox for the County’s enforcement efforts.” As is the County’s usual stance, Mr. Powers states that the proposed urgency ordinance will only be used for the most “egregious outliers” (AKA “very bad offenders”). He later adds, “We do have different rules in place that can help us get there (to a place of full compliance) but this (proposed ordinance) would be another mechanism that we could put in place in conjunction with those efforts.” Rather than clarifying and enforcing the ordinances that are already in place, the CDA continuously proposes unclear, far-reaching ordinances such as these. We later find the “new mechanisms” incorporated within them in other ordinances in other realms of code enforcement.

While the County attempts to solicit our community’s approval for these types of ordinances, the Board makes promises that they will only penalize residents deemed to be “very bad offenders” while they (1) simultaneously give county personnel far-reaching authority to determine who is a “very bad offender” and (2) they continue to adopt the mechanisms used in these far-reaching ordinances in other ordinances that further violate our personal and property rights – without oversight (i.e. cannabis ordinance, outdoor event ordinance, defensible space ordinance, firearm ordinance, etc.)!

When ordinances aren’t written clearly, or when they’re written to be far-reaching under the pretense that they won’t be fully enforced, this allows for county personnel to determine – without oversight – who the worst offenders are on a case-by-case basis. Even in best-case scenarios, county personnel are prone to having – and to acting upon – biases. Under these types of systems, code violations are not being enforced equally.

Biases can take the following forms:

  • Newcomer versus old timer
  • Democrat vs. Republican
  • Property owner vs. renter
  • If you’re a minority, or not
  • If you grow cannabis, or not
  • If you go to church, or not
  • Whether you dress – or look – a certain way
  • Whether you grew up with someone, went to the same high school, etc.
  • Or, quite frankly, if you’re just one of “those people” – whatever that means

Nevada County doesn’t currently have an ombudsman or an impartial committee to oversee county personnel’s decision-making, so when there aren’t clearly written and fully enforceable ordinances and/or policies in place, it creates confusion within the community. It also breeds inequity, distress and distrust.

Enforcement is a necessity of building codes and ordinances, however, it shouldn’t be the County’s top funding approach. Unfortunately, the warning signs that this is happening are clear. In addition to what I’ve mentioned above:

  • Fines, Forfeitures, and Penalties lie underneath Revenues by Source in the county budget, and these line items continue to yield higher and higher “Actual” numbers each year.
  • County code enforcement officers have previous work experience in law enforcement and the military on their resumes.
  • The CDA is proposing an urgency ordinance on COVID-19 enforcement that will increase already debilitating fines to an excessive level rather than enforcing the existing fine structure that is already in place.

As a community, we cannot tolerate enforcement/fine-driven revenue streams as a solution, especially as we continue to slide deeper into a recession! I recommend the County immediately start streamlining its processes to encourage permitting by local homeowners and businesses, which will not only benefit the residents of our community, it will also generate sustainable, long-term revenue streams for the County. Additionally, if county leadership changes its focus from enforcement to partnership with a strong emphasis on customer service (similar to what the city of Folsom has been successful with in terms of both its citizens and its economy: https://bit.ly/GreaterFolsomPartnership), Nevada County will be a much healthier, happier and more sustainable place to live and to do business. This shift would be a win/win for us as residents and our local economy.

If anything in this article struck a nerve, please write an email to your district’s Supervisor and copy me on your message (mtaylor4district1@gmail.com). Together, we can stop further violations of our personal and property rights, and together, we can build a better Nevada County.

District 1: heidi.hall@co.nevada.ca.us

District 2: ed.scofield@co.nevada.ca.us

District 3: dan.miller@co.nevada.ca.us

District 4: sue.hoek@co.nevada.ca.us

District 5: richard.anderson@co.nevada.ca.us

Not sure what district you live in? View Nevada County’s district maps here!

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UPDATE: In the Board of Supervisors meeting on August 11, 2020, Sean Powers, the Agency Director of the Nevada County Community Development Agency (CDA), publicly stated why his team is proposing these new ordinances at 5:47:35. He says, “We’re doing this to add another tool to the toolbox to help us with enforcement.”