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Blight fight lags
• Code enforcement officials can’t keep up
blight in Ceres
This example of blight was photographed Monday along El Camino Avenue north of Service Road and represents the growing problem of blight in a COVID-19 hampered environment. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Like many cities up and down the Valley, Ceres continues to wrestle with the significant problem of blight.

The problem is especially obvious along the frontage road in front of dilapidated housing scattered between Service Road and Whitmore Avenue. The sight of mattresses, piles of debris and abandoned shopping carts mar the image of Ceres  to freeway travelers headed northbound on Highway 99.

The city is overwhelmed by the problem with officials acknowledging that budget constraints have frustrated code enforcement efforts. Currently the city only employs two for code enforcement operations – being Roger Alvarez and Jeff Varney. The two report directly to Ceres Police Captain Pat Crane who has other law enforcement duties. While city officials are in agreement that Ceres could use four in code enforcement, the former council had not found a way to find money to add extra positions.

“They are reactive and not proactive and with more people we could take on a more proactive approach to the amount of calls that comes in related to code enforcement,” said Ceres Police Chief Rick Collins of the unit. “So they’re doing the best they can with the amount of resources we have.”

Collins said homeless individuals have only exacerbated the problem.

“It’s huge and it’s not unique to Ceres,” said Collins. “It’s widespread throughout the state. Once we clean up one area, another area is back in a state that’s not good on the eyes.”

COVID-19 has also delayed Caltrans clean-ups of homeless camps littering the freeway corridor – which spill onto frontage roads – and the Union Pacific Railroad has been slow in removing those living along tracks in Ceres.

Because the eyesore of commercial parking lots being used for overnight camping in cars and RVs was brought up by Ceres resident John Warren, the City Council is moving to outlaw the practice.

Illegal dumping remains a huge ongoing problem, noted Chief Collins. Another common complaint reported to the city code enforcement unit is that residents are leaving garbage containers on the street or in front or side yards in violation of the setback requirements. Earlier this year the City Council relaxed the law about where cans may be stored on residential lots on days when garbage isn’t being collected. That new standard allows residents to leave their cans in public view as long they are placed next to the house and set back behind the front face of the house or garage. Cans cannot be stored in front of garages either.

“To some in the city, it’s visual blight that they don’t like to see,” said Collins. He said the recent council change “doesn’t meet the approval of everybody in the city” which has resulted in more complaints to the unit.

Code enforcement officers also are charged with eradicating squalor in private residences that affect health. Such instances are less common but do require a lot of paperwork and reporting.

No one knows for sure if the new Ceres City Council will be pushing for additional funding to bolster code enforcement. The subject is expected to come up in February when the council – with its three new members – is expected to convene for a goalsetting workshop.

Council holdover Linda Ryno is in complete agreement that more bodies are needed for code enforcement but acknowledged money is short.

“We have a limited amount of funding so what position are you going to fill?” asked Ryno. “I mean, we have people who want our parks to look better so do you give us another park person? Do you do another code enforcement person? Do you do another police officer? I don’t know. We don’t have the money.”

Ceres may be looking at reduced sales tax revenues for fiscal year 2020-21 because of flagging sales among retailers due to the state-imposed shutdown of sectors of the economy due to COVID-19.

When asked to evaluate Ceres’ blight problem in comparison to neighboring cities, Ryno answered: “I don’t see it (blight) in Manteca. I think Modesto still has a problem and Modesto has a bigger problem with graffiti. I think we’re very lucky that we don’t have an issue with graffiti. We have a terrific graffiti (eradication) person and he gets right out there and takes care of it. We’re ahead of the curve with that.”

She believes Turlock has a bigger blight problem because homelessness is rampant, singling out freeway eyesores near the Hobby Lobby and the Lander Avenue exit.

The aesthetic problem of blight led to the formation of a 10-member ad hoc Beautification Committee earlier this year which put forth some initial recommendations. The group meets quarterly on the first Tuesday of the month. Code enforcement representatives participate. Heading up the committee are former Ceres mayor and former state Senator Anthony Cannella with Richard McKay as vice chairman. Brandy Meyer serves as the secretary and other members are Charlie Fernandes, Gene Yeakley, Alyssa Long, John Warren, Larry Lopes, Steven Whitney and Krishan Malhotra.

Committee member John Warren weighed in on the aesthetic problems in Ceres.

“I do feel that our code enforcement folks need a helping hand in doing their job,” Warren recently told the council. “Right now we only have two people that are involved in that particular operation. We should probably have at least four.”

In the first recommendation the committee suggested reducing the notification time for specific municipal code violations like overgrown grass and weeds on their property from the current 10 days. However the city attorney and Code Enforcement Division said that the standard for most cities is to allow violators 10 days to rectify violations. City Manager Tom Westbrook said that for health and safety violations, the city can reduce the noticing time to three days, but for property maintenance violations 10 days are required for due process.

The committee feels the city needs a strategic plan to deal with blight and part of that effort is to take a robust public outreach to notify residents what the city does and does not offer in the way of services. They also believe the community – its service clubs, churches, schools and youth clubs – can help get out the word. Members want Ceres to model a program similar to Modesto’s blight abatement strategy adopted by the Modesto City Council in 2019. The Modesto effort called for the community to donate funds to buy surveillance cameras to deter and catch illegal dumpers. Ceres has some cameras that can deployed in target areas.

The Ceres committee also feels the city should bolster the existing Adopt-A-Park program by encouraging service clubs, neighborhood groups, schools to clean a park on a regular basis. The program is administered by the Recreation Division with support from the Public Works Division. The city provides the pick-up grabber devices and garbage bags and discards the refuse collected.

The panel also hopes to encourage residents to participate in the Volunteers in Public Safety (VIPS) program to assist in code enforcement efforts. The idea is to complete lower level tasks to free up the sometime for the enforcement officers. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled the city’s volunteer program – due in part to the fact that most volunteers tend to be older and more at risk of the virus and have limited their activities with others.

If and when things go back to normal, Collins believes that volunteers could perform some tasks to help out, specifically follow-up on property maintenance issues as well as posting of door hangers in neighborhoods where code issues arise.

Another idea from the committee is to create a list of specific projects that can be completed by groups. It was also suggested to have monthly community cleanups, much like the “Love Ceres” events conducted by churches. There has not been a Love Ceres event for a few years now.

Blight on el camino
El Camino Avenue motorist passes by a common example of blight. - photo by Jeff Benziger