Code inspectors reveal illegal, unsafe side of the city
City code inspectors gave a tour through some of the worst code violations in Mountain View, including storage lockers being used as homes and an apartment complex where trash was dumped in a swimming pool, at a presentation last week to the City Council.
The presentation comes as the council considers various ways to cut the city budget in the long term. One second-tier budget cut proposed would lay off one of the city's two code inspectors, Kelli Casale and Chris Costanzo
Costanzo and Casale, who took turns making the presentation, said that about 75 percent of their work has to do with illegal dumping, front yard storage, vehicles parked on private property and sign violations. As a wave of foreclosures hit the country, Casale and Costanzo say they began to find large piles of garbage and unwanted furniture on the street outside of foreclosed homes. They've also begun to see more "hoarders," people who can't stop collecting things, filling their hallways with objects that could either catch fire or block an exit.
One of the more troubling cases was the discovery of a 74-year-old woman living in a storage locker at Public Storage on Old Middlefield Way. There were reports from police, confirmed by managers, about as many as five others living in the storage lockers, including one other woman who left before code inspectors arrived.
The elderly woman was last seen loading her things into a U-Haul truck heading for an unknown location, Casale said in a phone interview after the meeting. She had been sleeping on a recliner, which was so tightly packed into the small storage locker with her other possessions it didn't fully recline, Costanzo said. She declined help from the Community Services Agency, Casale said.
City Attorney Jannie Quinn said the company's regional managers were unaware the storage units were being used for housing, which is prohibited by the city's housing code.
Casale and Costanzo say they each have 35 to 50 open code violation cases at any given time, requiring multiple site visits to resolve. That's reasonable for ensuring the legality and safety of the city's 14,566 housing units, 24 hotels and motels and numerous other properties. They receive 75 to 80 complaints a year about code violations.
Costanzo called it an "adversarial" and "confrontational" job. Business owners are often unhappy about having to move a temporary sign off a sidewalk that could be bringing in business, one of the more common complaints. Costanzo said businesses have requested the ability to receive temporary permits for such signs.
Casale presented the case of a Rock Street apartment building where she was "terrified" to find a drained pool being used as a "dumpster and toilet." There was a large pile of garbage in it, including an old mattress. It turned out that the complex had been all but abandoned by a property owner who was set to redevelop the complex as row homes.
An explosion in the popularity of food trucks, which communicate with customers on Facebook and Twitter, has created a new challenge for code inspectors. The city has received half a dozen complaints about food trucks, including one from a restaurant about a truck that regularly parks on Ortega Avenue. "He's taking my business away and doesn't pay any rent," was how Mayor Jac Siegel described that complaint.
Recently a food truck set up a tent and a grill for several days in the parking lot of Clyde's Liquors on El Camino Real, spurring Quinn to begin a study of revisions to the city's 1958 "mobile canteen" ordinance this summer.
"At what point does it become a (land) use?" Quinn said.
It turns out that the temporary signs used by real estate agents to advertise open houses on the weekends are also illegal under the city's sign ordinance, when not on private property. Adam Montgomery, government relations director for the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors, said Los Altos and other cities are more lenient and he urged Mountain View officials to follow suit.
Council members were not critical of the code enforcement program in their remarks, though council member John Inks said he has been a critic of it.
"Just the fact that people know we have code enforcement keeps them following the law," Siegel said.
"It does hold the city together," said council member Laura Macias. "Of course you are going to get one or two unsatisfied customers."
Vocal critic Don Letcher, perhaps the most unsatisfied customer of all, called the program "abusive." Letcher has been engaged in a multi-year battle with the city over the fate of his rental property.
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