Supervisors will define building "nuisances"

03/10/2016

Whether to set strict time limits for construction projects in unincorporated Marin and impose hefty fines for noncompliance was the topic of a workshop Tuesday morning put on by the county’s Board of Supervisors, which has fielded passionate complaints from residents bothered by projects that have been allowed to drag on for years—sometimes even decades—without any incentive to wrap up.

But the move could be unprecedented in California. Should supervisors draft an ordinance that sets time limits and fines similar to those in Ross, Belvedere and Sausalito, Marin would become the first county in the state to put such rules in place, according to staff for the Community Development Agency. 

But supervisors at the workshop leaned toward tightening the legal definition of what would constitute a “nuisance” in order to speed along projects on a case-by-case basis, rather than imposing tough rules on all construction.

“I strongly believe we ought to define ‘nuisance’ and create more of a nuisance ordinance than a construction time limit,” Supervisor Steve Kinsey said. “We can probably come up with some relatively easily definable metrics.”

Others feel any new ordinance would deter worthwhile construction in Marin. Penalties, they say, would encourage developers to drop projects that had suddenly become financially unwieldy.

“It would definitely squash development, I think,” said Michael Mamone, a San Francisco resident whose 3,274-square-foot new home in Muir Beach has been under construction for the past four years and has angered neighbors. “When you’re building homes of this caliber, you can’t build it overnight. It’s complicated.”

But neighbors counter that they’ve had enough of this type of argument. After years of watching what has been described as a “stark white cruise ship parked at the top of a hill,” they are tired of the noise, debris and eyesore they say the project has caused.

“I understand that the problem is, at some point, [the county has] no further ammunition to use against someone who is clearly financially able to finish this project,” said Judy Colman, who lives across the street from Mr. Mamone’s property. “But we’re the ones dealing with it.”

Neighborhood critics of the project are also upset that the color of the house has remained white—even though, they say, the building permit’s stipulations called for “dark, earth-tone colors.” 

Now, Mr. Mamone has decided to keep the color white, and is applying for an amendment to his permit. (“He feels depressed when he’s around earth tones,” Supervisor Kinsey explained at Tuesday’s workshop.)

Contractor Dennis Rodoni pegged the problem not on contracting firms, but on homeowner-developers who may sustain work on their houses for a number of reasons—including a kind of tax dodge. The county assessor cannot appraise, or therefor tax, homes until permit terms are complete. Mr. Rodoni said he knows of one home in Stinson Beach that has been renewing its building permit intermittently for 50 years.

Even so, Mr. Rodoni said the board should carefully consider the implications of heavy fines, which could stall a project indefinitely as money is funneled into paying fines rather than into construction.

Currently, projects in unincorporated Marin receive building permits that generally set two-year construction limits. Permits are commonly given extensions anywhere from a week to a year in duration, with a $180 fee per renewal. 

According to the county’s senior permit technician, Bridgette Choate, the situation has gotten out of hand lately: a couple of projects, she said, have permits renewing automatically on a weekly basis, with the $180 extension fee tacked on each time. “You would think it would make you get it done faster,” Ms. Choate mused. 

She guessed that an average of 10 permit renewals occur each month.

To give a sense of how such an ordinance would play out, the agency’s assistant director, Tom Lai, applied the existing Ross, Belvedere and Sausalito ordinances to a 2,000-square-foot project in Point Reyes Station, which has been under construction for two years and three months. By his count, penalties for the project could range as high as $500,000—far higher than the $180 renewal fee it faces now.

Still, supervisors appeared more interested in directing county counsel David Zaltsman to more clearly define a legal “nuisance” in the context of prolonged construction. He or another counsel representative will join a subcommittee with two supervisors to iron out the definition.