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There Goes the Neighborhood

Author: Bonnie Durrance
December, 2016 Issue

Times are changing, just ask Dick Blakeley. In 1961, his dad started a little construction business in the hills on the northern end of Calistoga on Franz Valley School Road. From this remote, forested location, the family has run the business, serving northern Napa clientele—new wineries, private homes and, occasionally, the county of Napa, without incident—until the neighborhood started to change.

“It’s changed considerably,” says Kelly Blakeley, who today runs the business with her husband. “Attitudes are different. Businesses are different. You don’t have family connections anymore.”

Part of the change is driven by the steep increase in property values in Napa County in recent years. Many who can no longer afford a home here are forced to move out, and those who can afford more than one home are moving in. One neighbor, who asked her name not be used, said the change in the community, formerly all rural, and with a tight community feel, is a concern: “We’ve lived here 45 years and we have new neighbors on all sides. Most of them are weekenders, and they’re complaining about all sorts of things.”

New people, new values, new rules and new ways of doing things are all making an impact. “There’s just an awful lot of older generation people who are being run out because of situations they inherited,” says Dick Blakeley.

Inherited time-bombs

The Blakeleys’ trouble started in July 2014, when David Morrison, director of Napa County’s planning, building and environmental services, received complaints from certain members of the public (it’s county policy not to disclose identities of the complainants) concerning noise, unpermitted buildings and hours of operation. “During the course of our investigation, we raised questions about whether Blakeley Construction was legally established,” says Morrison. “We approached the owner, looked at our records and came to the conclusion that there was an issue.”

Upon investigating, the county found that the Blakeley’s operation was actually six years on the wrong side of the 1955 agricultural zoning ordinance and that further, some of the construction company’s buildings had been built without permits and were therefore illegal. How could that be?

“It was the ’60s,” Morrison says, thinking back to when Dick’s parents, Charles and Lorraine Blakeley, started the business. “There was no modern Subdivision Map Act. If you wanted to subdivide land, you went down to the recorder’s office, filed a survey map or deed and that was it. There was no public hearing. There wasn’t any CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act, passed in 1970 to ensure statewide consideration and protection of the environment]. There was no Endangered Species Act for another 12 years. There was no Clean Air Act. The zoning code was five pages long. It was a very different time.

“So while [a construction business in the agricultural zone] was actually a violation then, it may not have been considered that big of a deal,” he continues. “After years, it became part of the community landscape and nobody thought twice about it.”

Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon agrees. “If you asked almost anyone, ‘Do you think the Blakeleys are in compliance?’ I think, to a person, you would have heard, ‘Oh, they’ve been here forever!’ So nobody ever thought about it.”

“The old timers who built this valley, right or wrong, did things in their own time and in their own way,” says Dick Blakeley, who acknowledges the business was built on land that, a few years before, had been zoned agricultural. What’s more, the buildings had been erected without benefit of permits. He says his dad always told him, “Don’t worry, you’re grandfathered in.” So when he and Kelly got a “Notice of Violation” from the County Planning, Building and Environmental Services office in September 2014 saying he was not in compliance with zoning or permits, and giving him seven days to inform the Office of his plans to address the violation, they were was surprised.

They were beyond surprised, however, in June 2015, when neighbors all along Franz Valley School Road began coming to them upset, saying they’d received flyers in their mailboxes from a relatively new neighbor (whose second home and vineyard lies in the vicinity) urging them to unite in petitioning the county against the Blakeleys.

Soren Szczepanek, the Blakeley’s closest neighbor, whose parents bought the land adjoining the family in the 1970s, was shocked at what he read, which stated that the Blakeleys’ operation, with its “blight upon our road and community” has “significantly injured and burdened the community” and that the “surrounding neighbors wholeheartedly agree that Blakeley’s illegal operations…must end.”

The letter urged recipients to contact the signatories’ attorney. Szczepanek says the letter spoke for no one he knew and that, had there been such a dramatic nuisance, he—the very closest neighbor for more than 40 years—would have been aware of it. Dick and Kelly, who hadn’t personally met the neighbors who distributed the letter, were dismayed. “It’s a hard thing,” says Dick, “to think that somebody dislikes you so much they’ll actually take your livelihood away.”

The road to compliance

A number of the Blakeleys’ neighbors, hearing about the complaints, petitioned the county in support of the couple, even asking Supervisor Dillon, in one small meeting in Calistoga, why the county was going after this time-honored business. Dillon explains that the Blakeleys had been caught out of compliance, and if the county were to not enforce the law, the county could be vulnerable to a legal challenge. “If someone wants to press us or file an action, and get a judge to order us to enforce our zoning codes, we’re defenseless,” she says.

In June 2015, the Blakeleys appealed to the Napa County Zoning Commission at a public hearing to grant them a Certificate of Legal Non-conformance (CLN), which would let the business continue operation in recognition of the fact that it had been legal at the time it was founded but had fallen out of compliance when zoning and codes had subsequently changed. Dick says the meeting drew about 80 attendees in support of him and his wife, and exactly five arguing for their removal. The five included the neighbors who wrote the flyer, their lawyer and one other couple who own property nearby. (The county, for some reason, failed to assign a recorder, so there is no record of the hearing.)

The hearing was inconclusive. The Blakeleys, subsequently realizing they couldn’t meet the stipulations of the CLN, as the business and buildings had been illegal at the start, not just as result of subsequent regulations or requirements, withdrew their application. At that point, the only other options remaining were either to change the nature of the business to some sort of agriculture or agricultural support (after bringing all buildings up to code) or to put a ballot measure before the voters to ask for a zoning adjustment that would make their continued operation as a construction business (with all buildings up to code) possible. Whatever they did would require time, and the Blakeleys began working with the county on a plan to move forward.

Conditions and deadlines

“We did work with the Blakeleys,” says Morrison, “and we agreed to give them two and a half years to transition to another location, if possible, or to find another use of that property so they could see some economic benefit under its legal status.” He adds that such consideration isn’t unusual, and that the board has made it clear that its goal isn’t to punish people but to get them into compliance, “and there’s a lot of different ways that can be accomplished.”

The first thing the Blakeleys (or any other business that finds itself with buildings that aren’t in compliance) have to do is to bring the buildings up to code. In the Blakeleys’ case, nine buildings were erected without permits, and they had the choice to either upgrade them or demolish and replace the illegal buildings with “ag buildings.” They got to work.

“They’ve been told what they have to do,” says Dillon. “The community has given them support, and now—and this could be anybody—it’s possible to go to the voters to ask for a revision in the law that would render them legal.”

Trying for a ballot measure remains an option, but a distant one. “We can’t get voted on until June 2018,” says Kelly Blakeley, “which is when we’re supposed to move out. Right now, we’re trying to get everything done as stipulated by the county. We have deadlines. The ballot measure isn’t out of the question, but we need to do our homework to find out what it is we’re going to be dealing with if it should pass.“

How would the ballot measure work? “The voters can technically approve ‘spot zoning,’” says Dillon. “But it would be more prudent for the voters to approve something that would be narrowly tailored to apply to the Blakeleys’ situation without specifying them. If that should pass, the Blakeleys could continue operation within the law, assuming all buildings had been brought up to code. “In my humble opinion,” she says, “if the voters pass something that says this is legitimate to do, then we’ve given the Blakeleys a path to keeping their business there.”

A changing culture

A “yes” vote would resolve the compliance problem for the Blakeleys and would also resolve the potential legal problem for county, as far as the Blakeley situation goes. However, such an outcome may not appease those complaining of nuisance issues—who may have both the will and the means to take such complaints to court. That means it’s quite possible that, even with an OK from voters, the Blakeleys could find themselves facing additional lawsuits in the future, if the complaining neighbors are determined to get them out.

Dick Blakeley views the possibility philosophically. “It seems there’s an awful lot of things that happen when someone moves in and then tries to change the new place to how it was like where they’re from. A lot of the people who are from here aren’t the people with the money.” So far, their expenses include fines to the county of $84,272 and the costs, still adding up, of replacing buildings with permitted ag buildings.

And so the makeup of the peaceful, rural, forest and vineyard area with families going back generations, is shifting toward the higher end, with property values both driving and being driven by the change. The Blakeleys want most of all to be able to stay in their community, on their land in compliance with County rules and to continue to serve their Northern Napa clients and they are working to make sure they fulfill all of County’s stipulations in the time they have been given.  After that, they hope to put their issue before the voters to decide.

Increasing scrutiny

For its part, the county has been stepping up its enforcement of code and zoning compliance, aiming at maintaining balance in a changing valley with an increasingly affluent wine industry and a high-profile rural lifestyle. Some call it a “crack-down,” but Morrison, who came onboard two and a half years ago, says he wouldn’t characterize it as that. Rather, he says, “It’s just people doing their jobs.”

He says he’s seen an increase of interest by the public and the wine industry in the county enforcing the rules. “It’s not just individual landowners who live near a violating facility or groups concerned about environmental damage being done. The [wine] industry has also said, ‘Many of us are following the rules, and when others are able to reduce costs by not following the rules’ it’s not fair to us.’”

Depending on the story, the county is often reported as either going after wineries or letting wineries get away with things. “We’re not picking on wineries,” says Morrison, “violations are filed on a range of properties and uses, but wineries are the majority of businesses in the unincorporated area.”

County code compliance has always been driven, as in the Blakeley case, by complaints. “Much like law enforcement,” says Morrison, “the police are typically called to a crime scene. We’re similarly complaint-oriented.”

This is because county officials don’t have the means to examine each of thousands of parcels to determine whether they’re in compliance for all codes. He says it wouldn’t be a prudent use of county resources to examine the status of each one. So when the county receives complaints in any form—written, phoned in, emailed, or even anonymous—an investigation is started. “We look at each complaint at face value,” he says. “We try to deal with things in a firm, friendly and fair manner.”

The county is now working to create a more formal compliance process. “We’ve just went to the board last week with a draft Policies and Procedures Manual that includes rules about how we conduct our compliance investigations and prosecutions,” says Morrison.

“The goal is that both people who file a complaint to know what the rules are and people who have an alleged violation know what their rights are. The manual lets us set expectations about how staff should act in these cases.” This will be a more formal process, and the staff is stepping up training. “One of our code compliance officers just got their certification from the California Code Enforcement Association,” he says, “and two others are going to be taking their test soon.”

Dealing with violations

Numerous laws have to be followed to execute due process, Morrison explains. The people accused of a violation are innocent until proven guilty and are accorded due process, which means they have a right to appeal, to be heard and to not have people coming on the property without warrant. “It’s similar to law enforcement,” says Morrison. “We have to follow many of the same rules.”

Similarly, penalties have all been laid out in California law. “But the levels of penalties or fines differ according to the violation,” he says. “Health code has one, zoning code has another, building code another—so staff has to navigate through all that.”

Consistency is a major consideration. “We need to make sure we’re following the same code enforcement procedures through all divisions and departments,” he says. “I don’t think it’s helpful to people who are trying to comply to find they have a health violation and then a building violation. We want to lay out everything at the same time so we can deal with all the issues at one time.”

For Morrison, the “lodestone” has always been the General Plan, which, he says, has been very consistent over the last 50 years, in terms of setting out a vision of Napa County remaining agricultural, with environmental protections in-place and, in the last 40 years, with a growing, world-class wine industry and its accompanying demand for tourists. “So the basic vision of being a rural, low-density county that prides itself on its environment and agriculture remains the same. But I think it’s gotten more complex over the last 30 or 40 years as the area’s lifestyle has become increasingly desirable.”

He describes the county’s position as one of needing to maintain balance. “If code compliance is too lax, neighbors or people who’re feeling impacted by a violation are going to sue us if we don’t enforce the law. If code compliance is too rigid, people can sue us for over-zealously prosecuting the law. We have to be as fair as possible. If we do get too far one way or the other, it’s hard to justify in court why we’re stepping outside those bounds to intentionally harm one group to at expense of another.”

The consequences, especially as changes take place in the culture of the valley, can become costly. Therefore, the county is committed to working with businesses to provide guidance to assist them with coming into compliance. “Compliance is all we ask,” he says. “No more and no less.”

 

 

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