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Hoping to alleviate a chronic backlog of code enforcement cases, Sonoma County is preparing to get more aggressive in handling serious code violations, from illegal marijuana farms and unpermitted vacation rentals to squalid housing and properties transformed into junkyards.

The Board of Supervisors last week approved a series of measures aimed at better managing the approximately 1,000 code enforcement complaints received annually by the county’s Permit and Resources Management Department.

The move follows appeals from agency officials who say they don’t have enough resources to tackle the mounting code issues. On Tuesday, supervisors approved plans to hire a new enforcement manager, allocate more funds for prosecuting code violations and empower the county counsel and PRMD director to expeditiously take major offenders to court.

“People expect results out of government,” Supervisor James Gore said in an interview. “When you have one of two things — either extreme nuisance situations that negatively impact an entire community, or if you have bad people doing bad things — as government, you need to be able to respond and stop that, otherwise people lose faith in what you do.”

Funds from Measure A, the cannabis business tax approved overwhelmingly by county voters Tuesday, could help further increase the county’s code enforcement division. Supervisors are expected to consider a separate plan for enhanced enforcement of marijuana operations at a later date.

County struggling to keep up

The county has been struggling in recent years to keep up with an increasing amount of code complaints, which rose more than 20 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to county officials. The cases range from unsafe and unhealthy rental housing to environmental violations and neighborhood nuisances, many tied to vacation rentals and the county’s expanding cannabis industry.

The high caseload translates to a ratio of about 106 code violations for every one staff member, compared with a 70-to-1 ratio in Mendocino, Napa and Marin counties, officials said.

The county has had a code enforcement manager before, but the position was combined with another management role during the recession. As the economy recovered since then and development increased, the code enforcement workload has grown — a challenge compounded by the need to enforce new county regulations on such uses as vacation rentals and marijuana cultivation.

Officials said the workload fueled their call for restoring a code enforcement manager post to PRMD, which oversees planning and building activities outside city limits.

“That person is going to be a key position to helping us get through the backlog, as well as the new types of cases we anticipate,” said Nathan Quarles, the department’s deputy director of engineering and construction.

The caseload and staffing issues have compounded a code enforcement funding dilemma for the county.

Because of the recession-era staffing reduction, the number of code enforcement hearings dropped from 75 in the 2009-10 fiscal year to 23 in the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to the county. That has impeded code enforcement officials’ ability to recover penalties from violators, forcing them to rely more on general fund revenues in recent years.

Adding a manager is expected to help resolve more code enforcement complaints and bring more cases to hearings, generating about $600,000 in additional annual revenue.

Officials also previously estimated the county’s new marijuana rules would require 8 to 14 additional code enforcement staff, with funding sources including Measure A — the cannabis business tax — fines and penalties. Quarles said the department would likely bring in new staff over time, aiming to have the first crop on board by July 1.

Pursuing code violators

Supervisors have allocated an additional $50,000 to the County Counsel’s Office for this fiscal year and $250,000 in future fiscal years to fund prosecution of the most egregious code violations. They also have authorized the PRMD director and the county counsel to circumvent the normal administrative process in certain instances and directly file litigation against high-risk violators.

Jeff Brax, chief deputy county counsel, said officials have bypassed the administrative process in the past, but they previously had to seek approval from the Board of Supervisors to do so.

“We still basically will, but in particularly egregious cases, or where significant damage is already occurring and we may not be able to get to the board first, we could file suit and then go to the board to ratify that decision after the fact,” Brax said.

The counsel’s office and PRMD are developing a list of criteria under which such expedited action can occur, Brax said.

Staffing constraints and the county’s high caseload have previously made it difficult for officials to investigate and resolve complaints about squalid living conditions in scores of homes outside city limits.

Tenants’ health, safety at risk

A investigation by The Press Democrat, published in a series of stories last year, found that hundreds of renters in Sonoma County, perhaps thousands by some estimates, live in housing so run down that it jeopardizes the tenants’ health and safety.

Inspectors said it was impossible to keep up with complaints against offending landlords, fueling a backlog in unresolved cases that stretched back years, and in some cases several decades, the yearlong investigation found.

Santa Rosa attorney Edie Sussman, who specializes in tenant rights and slum housing cases, said she was happy to see the county beef up its code enforcement program. But elected leaders would need to change their priorities in order to really tackle the squalid housing problem, Sussman said.

“The county has a history of not rigorously enforcing codes that affect poor and working folks who are living in substandard housing,” she said. “Part of the reason for that is simply their lack of resources, but the other part is a lack of political will.”

County officials have expressed hope that additional resources can help resolve the most serious threats to public health, safety and the environment. Supervisor David Rabbitt suggested at Tuesday’s meeting that better enforcement could help the county be more proactive with violators, forgoing the need to chase repeat offenders from one problem property to the next.

“This has been a legacy, decades-long issue,” Rabbitt said. “There’s no guarantee that it will go away tomorrow, even with this new program ... but we’re going to be much more likely to be successful with this in place.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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