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Blight fight: City has plenty of eyesores to tackle
Code Enforcement staff too small for problems
An abandoned grocery cart filled with junk and a discarded tire at El Camino Avenue at Don Pedro Road mars the view of Ceres that Highway 99 motorists have daily. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

During a brainstorming session for the general plan update held earlier this year, participants were asked to come up with a list of what's right and what's wrong in Ceres. Blight ranked high as a negative.

Little wonder. Blight is everywhere in Ceres. It's a Chamber of Commerce nightmare.

The dictionary defines blight as "something that frustrates plans or hopes," or "a deteriorated condition." Spelling out tangible examples of blight is not really tricky; you know it when you see it. However, blight, like beauty, is largely in the eye of the beholder. One man's RV parked on the side of his house may be his pride and joy, but may an irritation for a neighbor who considers it an oversized eyesore.
Most people would generally accept the following conditions as blight:

• A crashed Sonata sitting idle in a driveway on Oasis Avenue;

• An abandoned grocery cart filled with debris and a car tire at El Camino Avenue at Don Pedro Road;

• Excessive numbers of vehicles parked in the court on Burton Drive;

• A dust-covered Ford pickup sitting on a side dead lawn at Pyramid and Standford;

• A dirty boat sitting in the driveway on the same property;

• Christmas lights hanging from a house on Rose Avenue;

• A trailer filled with scrap metal next to piles covered with tarps on Omie Lane;

• A fire-damaged home on Walnut Avenue;

• An abandoned car on Roeding Road covered by an E-Z Up with a discolored and shredded tarp;

• Prolonged unfinished remodeling of a Sixth Street home still awaiting stucco to cover tar paper on its exterior walls;

• A fire-damaged and boarded-up house on S. Central Avenue;

• Excessive window signage in the Punjab Plaza Shopping Center;

• Run-down shopping centers on Mitchell Road which look outdated, bear signs of deferred maintenance, cluttered with advertising signs that exceed city sign standards and trashed parking lots.

Other more generic examples are as follows:

• Garbage cans stored in public view all over Ceres when local law requires them hidden except for collection hours;

• Graffiti on buildings, dumpsters, signs and sound walls;

• Yards overrun with weeds, dead or neglected landscaping including lawns that aren't watered;

• Trash and debris discarded in all areas;

• Cars parked on lawns or anywhere on a lot other than the driveway;

• Homes that have cosmetic issues, such as rotting siding, chipping or fading paint, curling or missing shingles, or homes painted with bright or gaudy colors;
• Broken or unpainted fences;

• Yard sale or other signs left taped on poles and traffic signs;

• The presence of panhandlers and homeless encampments on well-traveled Ceres streets;

• Dumpster diving where garbage is pulled out and scattered around the receptacle;

•Boats, RVs, horse trailers, camp trailers and jet ski with trailers parked in front or side yards visible to the public;

City officials in Ceres say they don't want blight being the acceptable norm but they note this part of California is, as someone coined, the Valley of the Poor. But ridding blight from Ceres - or any other city - may be a pipe dream given the widespread socio-economic and education levels influencing how people live.

"It's not just a Ceres issue," said City Manager Toby Wells. "I think you see that a lot in the Valley."

People are also often too busy to tend to issues like maintaining their homes and yards, he said.

"They're busier trying to work multiple jobs and taking care of the property is a secondary thing to trying to put food on the table," said Wells. "I think there are also some cultural differences there as well. What looks good to some cultures is not what looks good to others."

Local city managers are wrestling with the issue of tackling blight in their respective jurisdictions, said Wells, but nobody has come up with a good answer to the question, "how do you make people care?"

"You can't legislate that. There's nothing any of us can do ... to say ‘Thou shalt care about your property and make sure it looks good in everybody's eyes.'"

A systemic change could result when neighbors collectively care about neighbors, he feels.

"Does it start at a neighborhood level where people just care about each other and help each other by being better neighbors? Thirty, forty years ago if a neighbor was down on his luck, you know, a medical issue or whatever, the neighbors helped out. Johnny went and mowed the (lawn of the) neighbor who fell and broke her hip."

No thing is for certain: The city of Ceres just doesn't have the adequate number of employees needed to bring about noticeable successes in Code Enforcement. For a city of nearly 50,000 residents, Wells believes that Ceres could use three code enforcement officers and a supervisor to be more proactive. It onl has one and a half devoted to blight.

Code Enforcement Officer Frank Alvarez agrees.

"There's just so much for one person to do," said Alvarez.

While more help is needed, he feels the city could hire more officers could if it got serious about stiffening the fees and fines. Another idea, he feels, is to go with contract code enforcement agencies like some cities. Alvarez feels many people are getting away with not paying their citations and said rarely do they go to collection agencies.

"When they set up Code Enforcement they wanted us to work with the people, to not be heavy-handed," said Alvarez. "It's gotten to the point where we have to figure out a way to just say, okay, we've been the nice guy all these years. It's not working. We need to be a little bit more heavy-handed. Unfortunately that's what people understand."

Could the city generate money for Code Enforcement by exacting more fines for violators? In years past the city's Code Enforcement team has gone around on weekends and checked for yard sale permits - tracking many down through the illegal signs - but Wells said "it's a lot of effort for a small dollar amount."

"We've tried it off and on over the years but recently it's not one of those that's trickled up to the top of the complaint list. I think it's a pet peeve for a lot of people but it's not one of those that people are."

For years the city has struggled to deal with blight effectively. For about eight years Code Enforcement had been placed in the overview of Ceres Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes with limited success. Nicholes proposed a Volunteers in Code Enforcement (VICE) program to help city staff but the idea was later abandoned when few came forward. Wells and the City Council then placed Code Enforcement under the purview of the Ceres Police Department. In 2015 progress was at its zenith with the team of Code Enforcement officers Joe Wren and Frank Alvarez. Wren left the city earlier this year, however, and Alvarez was sidelined for months after an automobile injury. The Ceres Neighborhood Enhancement Team (CNET) is back up to speed, said Wells, with Ceres Police Department Sgt. Jason Coley heading up the unit and Alvarez saying he is "somewhat caught up."

Currently a lot of Alvarez's time is being spent on dealing with homeless squatters on private properties, mostly in the area of Mitchell and Roeding roads. State law has made a hard to clean up homeless encampments, said Alvarez, but the city is working with property owners to crack down through trespassing charges as well as getting owners to trim overgrown trees and brush that serve as hiding places for homeless camps.

State law is also making it burdensome for cities to clean up homeless encampments. Cities must now collect and store possessions of the homeless valued at $7 and above in case they want to come back for it within a 30-day period, said Alvarez.

The subject of blight often comes up at Ceres City Council meetings. In 2014 Ceres resident Eileen Pratt armed herself with a number of illegally placed yard sale signs that she ripped down herself, to ask the Ceres City Council to enforce existing law that forbids such ad devices. The problem remains widespread. Condition of blight occur regularly when people tape or nail yard or garage sale signs - often made of neon colors - to poles and metal sign poles. The Municipal Code makes it illegal for anyone to put up such signs - unless it's the one sign allowed at the sale site - and that information is outlined as illegal in the necessary permit to hold a sale. Not only do few bother to get yard sale permits, those who put up illegal signs don't bother to remove their signs after the sale. Left-up signs often blow off or curl up around very sticky duct tape.

"It's just a tough one to be a priority," said Wells. "We get that complaint pretty regularly, and I'm like, ‘Take the sign down. You saw it, take it down.' It's just as easy for someone else (to remove it) but it's a never-ending job. I do it all the time. If I see a sign I pull it down all the time."

The city charges $5 for a permit and limits an address to two sales per calendar year. Wells said he's kicked around the idea of limiting garage sales to two coordinated weekends per year per council district. "Let's say District 1, you get two yard sales a year. They're on the first weekend in April and the last weekend in September and that's it. No other yard sales. Manteca does kind of those communitywide yard sales and just ban it the rest of the year."

Earlier this year Councilwoman Linda Ryno proposed the idea of using clear polycarbonate coverings to board up the doors and windows of vacant homes rather than plywood. She noted the boarded up appearance added to neighborhood blight, singling out a home on Caswell Avenue.

During the Aug. 8 Ceres City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Mike Kline mentioned how the drought has taken its toll on the visual appeal of some commercial properties, mentioning Payless Shoe Source and Kmart by name. Kline suggested city staff members work with businesses to re-landscape with drought-tolerant plants or artificial turf for better aesthetics.

"I do believe that, in the business that I do, aesthetics mean a lot," said Kline. "When aesthetics are brought up, businesses have a tendency to increase ... because as people drive by they see that it's presentable."

One bright spot in cleaning up Ceres has been the great progress made since 2014 in eliminating commercial A-frame signs and feather banner signs that were thick along stretches of Mitchell and Hatch roads and Whitmore Avenue.

The city is limited in what it can do to hold older established businesses to aesthetic standards. But for those more recent commercial projects approved with maintenance standards, the city can take enforceable actions. Wells said convincing property owners to voluntarily invest in their property's aesthetics can be a long process.

"Save Mart is the perfect example," said Wells. "We've been on their case for 15-20 years ... and they're finally doing it."

Wells said once a retail center turns 30, that's when owners start thinking about new façade renovations. He said there is a relationship that making a center sparkle often results in more sales and higher rents.

Ryno wonders if many business owners care how they are viewed by the community and probably haven't made the connection between appearance and profits.

"I wish everybody would take care of landscaping," said Mayor Chris Vierra. "I drove down Eastgate Boulevard the other day and it doesn't look like the nice image that I think we thought it was going to look like. I think it could but the problem is, because of the drought, everything looks dead. It's not the impression you would like to see."

Wells said the city does have standards for residents to keep residential properties.

"We've got a whole code section on standards and things that we can try to hold people to but at the end of the day it does take compliance," said Wells. "Our hammer of walking onto somebody's property and say ‘We're going to fix it for you and here's your bill,' there's a whole due diligence process that we have to follow that is cumbersome."

Typically those hardline actions are for the "more egregious things," such as property abandonment.

Blight has crept into Eastgate, Ceres' newest and most promising development for visually-pleasing standards. A drive around last week turned up a number of examples of blight, such as a dead lawn, downed basketball hoop and dusty abandoned car on Pomegranate Avenue; numerous addresses where garbage cans were stored in front, not behind, the fence; and a weed-filled lot on Filbert Drive that hasn't been visited by a lawnmower in a while.

Alvarez is also seeing lots of cars being parked on lawns. Some homeowners are also thumbing their nose at city code which forbids more than 50 percent of a front law area being cemented over. He spotted one Helen Perry Road homeowner preparing forms to pour cement over more than 50 percent of the entire front yard area and warned him not to. When he checked Monday the job had been done, covering about three-quarters of the front yard with cement.

"People are parking on lawns because they have multiple families living there. People start parking on their grass and it's ugly and just tears it up."
While many residents don't care, it seems that many do.

"This city is a dumping ground," complained Ceres resident Valerie Casal. "My neighborhood went from a nice clean street to a dump in 30 years ... a lot of my neighbors use their porches for storage, it's a mess."

Years ago the city enacted a Ceres Municipal Code section which forbids residents from keeping their trash cans in public view and less than 15 feet from the right of way line. The lone exception is when it's allowed at the curb after 6 p.m. the day before collection day and removed by 6 a.m. the following day. Few residents either know about the code or refuse to abide by it.

Joy Avenue resident Don Donaldson learned that misplacement of a garbage can is costly when he was cited for violating the law. During the Sept. 12 council meeting, Donaldson protested being singled-out when the problem is widespread on his street.

"My garbage can is between my motorhome, my wife's car and my Jeep and there's only one time that you can see that is whenever you're 90 degrees into that," Donaldson told the council. "Should it be there? Probably not; but I can go out in the street and I can take pictures of garbage cans on the streets."

Wells said that in most cases enforcement of garbage can storage has been complaint-driven but the city has sends out notifications to entire neighborhoods if the problem is widespread.

"This happens all the time," said Wells. "We get pulled in the middle of neighborhood disagreements. ‘I don't like where you park your car so I'm calling Code Enforcement on you.' So we try to be as consistent as possible but we still have a complaint-driven process. With a staff of one-and-a-half we're not proactively out canvassing neighborhoods. But when we get the garbage can type issue, we get called out to a complaint for something and we see 10 other people on the street then we just do a block mailer, you know, just in case you didn't know here's the ordinance."

Wells believes that property maintenance problems are linked to rental properties.

"The more rentals you have, there tends to be a correlation with Code Enforcement. When people are renting a property they care less than when they own it, as a general thought."

While he has not brought the matter to the City Council, Wells is mulling the need to put slumlords on the hook for the cost of Code Enforcement activities that they and their tenants are causing.

Some property owners will say they don't have money to satisfy aesthetic standards. The city, ironically would be among them. Wells said the city doesn't have the money to take care of the blight of the Ceres water tower, which is in bad need of a paint job. The last painting of the tower - complete with the American flag - cost $5,000. Wells, however, said that due to the presence of lead-based paint, the existing paint would have to be completed removed with the entire structure shrouded to eliminate the potential for the paint to fly away. The estimated costs for the removal and to repaint with the right painting material would cost in excess of $300,000.