Code enforcement mired in politics?
June 9, 2008 · Updated 2:53 PM
"City code enforcement complaints are down from a year ago. But is enforcement improving?Not if you ask code enforcement officer Will Peddy, who says the city council is preventing him from doing his job effectively.I keep getting interrupted by council people in our code enforcement actions, especially the critical ones, Peddy said in an interview with the Review last week.Peddy said he can't levy fines for code infractions, because council members have convinced the Bainbridge Island city administration to exempt some development projects from punitive action.That thwarts his department's attempt to enforce city codes in an equitable manner, he said, and compels him to either follow a double standard of selective enforcement or cease issuing fines altogether.Peddy said he leans towards the latter policy, and will not issue any fines for code violations until somebody comes to me who has the authority and says, 'here's the criteria we are going to use to fine and penalize people.'Mayor Dwight Sutton, who last week acknowledged the ambiguity of the current enforcement policy, said projects that are time-sensitive with respect to outcome and (demonstrably) serve an important public purpose may be exempted from fines and be allowed to continue without city permits.Under the municipal code, fines for permit and code violations can be leveled at the discretion of Peddy and the planning department. Some island residents last year complained to the city council about the lack of fines being imposed, despite a record number of complaints inundating Peddy's office during the recent building boom.There should be fines levied whenever there is a violation, said Vince Mattson of the Association of Bainbridge Communities, a critic of the city's code enforcement process. Just to get another individual in there (as a code enforcement officer) is not solving the problem.Bainbridge Island City Council member Jim Llewellyn, who said he supports a selective enforcement policy, said that the decision to exempt some projects will depend on the circumstances, because these things happen on a case by case basis.But that opens the door to highly subjective interpretations, said Peddy, who believes exempting some projects from fines could depend on the ability of landowners or developers to curry favor with city officials. The little guys don't have any muscle with the council, Peddy said, and they don't know how to politic with them.Who will be fined?Peddy's complaints about selective enforcement were triggered by what he cited as two council interventions in his enforcement efforts, both of which he said were unjustified.In each case, Peddy said, he had planned to issue fines, but council members complained and city planning Director Stephanie Warren shelved the fines on the grounds that public need required completion of the projects.The first instance was last fall, when Peddy placed a stop-work order on a new water main being installed by the North Bainbridge Water Company near Day Road. The line was intended to improve water service and fire protection for a planned light industrial project in Manzanita. Neighbors complained that the project damaged a wetland and polluted Manzanita Creek, a salmon stream, although company officials said at the time that the mishap was inadvertent and that they stopped work voluntarily.Peddy said he planned to issue a fine to North Bainbridge Water, but was prevented from doing so. The water company was allowed to continue with the project after a two-week shutdown. That, Warren said last week, was because the company had taken steps toward compliance with city requests for remediation. Another reason to was a perceived need to give the fire department a better water supply in the area, she said.Peddy said the seriousness of the violation should have warranted fines, because despite the company's remediation efforts, the damage was already done. Parking lot disputedLast week, Peddy's department was at odds with local developer Gale Cool over the expansion of a commercial parking lot at the corner of Winslow Way and Ferncliff Avenue. Peddy wrote that the lot violates the city's zoning code, was covered with gravel fill and posted with signs without a permit, and continues to operate without a required business license. An enforcement letter was issued Tuesday morning.Peddy said he intended to issue fines and a stop-work order, but various council members intervened through the mayor to suspend any fines and allow the lot to remain in use, while Cool appealed the enforcement decision. During the appeals process, he said, stop-work orders have always remained in effect until alleged violators at least apply for proper permits. But the city has an urgent need for parking for ferry users, Sutton said. He and Llewellyn agreed that since the site had in the past been used for parking, at least informally, there was a precedent that should allow the lot to continue operating without a pending permit application.Sutton said the rationale was that, because (the site) was used historically, let's see if we can give (Cool) some access to deal with these horrendous parking problems.Peddy said that while the historical parking area operated by Cool was only large enough for about 60 cars, expansion included additional spaces for more than 100 vehicles, and entailed substantial clearing of land and dumping of gravel. Such a development would normally have to undergo environmental review during the permitting process.While ceding to the fact that we probably needs (some permits), Cool maintained this week that the parking is permitted as a temporary use in that zone, while he continues design work for the proposed Winslow Landing mixed-use development there. That project is proposed to include upwards of 500 spaces, all underground.I think it's in everybody's interest to keep parking there, Cool said, as he applies for permits. And at $5 per day, he said, he's providing the cheapest parking in the area. Complaints continueSome citizens now criticize the exemptions, and believe the council and mayor are pandering to the influential.We're supposed to live in a democracy, where all people are equal, said north-end resident Priscilla Lavry, one of a number of islanders who last year complained to the council en masse about lax code enforcement. But we know that some people are more equal than others.Others question why the council seems to be playing a role in enforcement decisions, since it is a legislative body and has no authority over city employees.The mayor has told us that these are administrative issues and not to be determined by the council, said Charles Schmid of ABC. For him to ask the council how to interpret the law is going against his own rules he laid down.Sutton last week denied that the council tells him how to interpret the law.Decisions come from me, but through the council's general advice to me, he said.Sutton said that the controversy over enforcement decisions stem from his best assessment of a code that has not been completely clear on the parameters or limits. Sutton said Tuesday he welcomes the dialog over enforcement, and hopes the council will make changes to better codify the guidelines for fines in the future. I like this, he said. It reveals for the council the problems that emerge from what we think are good regulations.But not all council members support the creation of enforcement loopholes. We shouldn't be governing by exception, Councilman Michael Pollock said.It would take something of extraordinary importance to simply look the other way on fines, Pollock said. I don't think either (the North Bainbridge Water Company or Cool parking lot) projects meet that standard.Peddy agrees, which is why he says he has had to reevaluate his enforcement strategy. He will focus on bringing violators into compliance through letters of violation and stop-work orders, but will hesitate to levy fines because he can't conscionably fine some violators and not others.Nevertheless, Peddy said, he would like to issue more fines, because he has perceived a public mandate to do so. The planning department received 83 complaints code enforcement complaints last month down from 114 in February 1999. And Peddy said he is glad the city has hired a new half-time code enforcement officer - Scott Erickson, who went on the job March 1 - to help him manage the case load.Staff writer Douglas Crist contributed to this report."