County fees surpass cost of Ramona retiree’s barn
Retiree, 74, sees himself starring in his own drama—“The Story of Luigi: The Little Mouse from Ramona who’s Not Afraid of the San Diego County Elephant.”
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series about the impact of government regulations on property owners, business owners and developers.
By Karen Brainard
A small barn to house a horse for his granddaughter’s visits has become a costly endeavor for Luigi Fasano and could become much worse if he does not meet an April 21 deadline with the county.
The 74-year-old came to Ramona to retire after spending 41 years building sets in Hollywood for such notable actors as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Doris Day.
He now sees himself starring in his own drama—what he calls “The Story of Luigi: The Little Mouse from Ramona who’s Not Afraid of the San Diego County Elephant.”
County staff said Fasano’s situation is unique because he built a structure before obtaining a building permit from the Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU).
The setting of Fasano’s story is a four-acre “mini farm” where he installed a carport, the barn-like shed, and an electric-powered gate, all without permits. The gate, he said, was to protect his dogs and visiting grandchildren from the busy state Route 78.
The story begins in 2002, when county code enforcement received a complaint from one of Fasano’s neighbors about the carport, according to a chronology from DPLU. Fasano said he didn’t think he needed a building permit for the 200-square-foot carport.
The county discovered the carport was partially on a private road easement and told Fasano to remove it, which he did in 2008. By that time, Fasano had built the 580-square-foot metal barn with cement blocks for a foundation and a dirt floor. He did not check with the county about a building permit, he said, because people had told him that without a concrete slab, a permit would not be needed.
County staff said a building permit was needed and advised him to hire a licensed professional to draw his barn plans and assist him with the permit process. Fasano hired Paul Worland, a licensed engineer.
DPLU attributes much of Fasano’s subsequent problems to the fact that he did not obtain an administrative permit first, as recommended by staff, before submitting plans for his building permit, which has an expiration date. However, both Fasano and his engineer said no mention was made of an administrative permit until they were ready to pull the building permit.
According to Worland, the county responded quickly as he and Fasano went through the building permit process. Plan approvals were received from all required groups including neighbors, the Ramona Community Planning Group, the fire marshal, Department of Public Works, and Department of Environmental Health. All that was left was a planner’s signature, he said.
“Literally we were pulling the permit when the planner noticed it (the barn) was too high,” said Worland.
Because the barn exceeded the height allowed by the zoning ordinance—by 32 inches according to Fasano, 48 inches according to DPLU—Fasano was informed he would need an administrative permit.
Fasano said he took a loan out against his property to pay the $3,582 estimate for the administrative permit. County staff said Fasano was told that amount was an initial deposit and he signed an Application Deposit Acknowledgement form stating that he understood this. Staff said the administrative permit was processed and completed in three months.
When Fasano began receiving additional bills from the county, he complained in a letter to County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. A month later, in October 2009, Fasano received a letter from Brian Baca, chief of project planning division at DPLU, responding at Jacob’s request. Baca explained that the average cost to process an administrative permit application ranges from $4,800 to $7,000, but Fasano’s cost was at the higher range because it was more complex.
The bills began to mount for a barn that cost less than $4,000 to build and Fasano said he couldn’t pay them. If he had known the administrative permit would cost that much, Fasano said, “I would never have gone the route of feeding the planning department elephant an administrative permit fee.”
His bills now are well over $11,000, including plan-check fees, penalties and about $8,800 for costs associated with the administrative permit, he said. The building permit has expired.
DPLU staff explained the costs: “The additional costs for Mr. Fasano’s permit can be attributed to the fact that his project is a code violation case, which required additional fees to cover the cost of inspection, analysis time and follow-up—and because Mr. Fasano initiated a high number of staff contacts, including phone calls, letters and meetings that have required significantly more staff time than a typical administrative permit application.”
Fasano calls it a “bait and switch” tactic that the county is using to get money from unsuspecting citizens to cover the costs of payroll and pensions. Not only can he not pay the fees, he said, but he cannot afford to repair his house, which has a leaky roof and needs repainting.
“If someone has a big elephant to feed, they become desperate enough to charge a small mouse like me 11 bales of hay ‘because little mouse, that’s how much the elephant eats,’” said Fasano.
On March 21, Fasano received a letter from DPLU, reminding him that his administrative permit is ready for issuance once he pays his deficit accounts that total $5,297. He is then required to open a new plan-check and pay the requisite fees, submit building plans and pay building permit fees to correct the unpermitted barn and electric gate violations. As an option, he could remove the barn and gate within a 30-day timeframe.
The letter warned him that failure to comply by April 21 will result in additional actions by means of issuing administrative citations up to a total of $10,000 and civil penalties up to a total of $50,000 per year per violation, referral to county counsel to obtain a civil injunction, and referral to the district attorney’s office for criminal prosecution or public nuisance abatement where the county will obtain a court order to remove the violations at his expense.
Fasano was denied a meeting to discuss his fees in March because DPLU said it had already sent him three letters. As with similar cases, staff said, if Fasano fails to comply by paying his unpaid debt by the specified date, the county is prepared to issue administrative civil penalties. After 41 years in construction in Los Angeles, Fasano said he looks at what his small projects have cost him.
“This has been a knife in my chest. I would never do it again,” he said.
Gig Conaughton, communications specialist for the county, noted in an email that, if Fasano had gone to the county to obtain a building permit before construction, staff would have pointed out that the barn was taller than the zoning ordinance allowed. He then probably would not have needed the administrative permit.
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