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Sunday, December 9 , 2018, 9:54 pm | Fair 52º


Santa Barbara Spurns Effort to Modify Property Sale Zoning Information Reports

City Council votes to keep real estate transaction-related reports mandatory, despite calls from agents and county Grand Jury to make them voluntary

The City of Santa Barbara has no interest in making zoning information reports voluntary, despite a request from the Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury and the longtime advocacy of local real estate agents.

Dozens of real estate agents on Tuesday called on the City Council to make the reports — performed by city staff at a cost of $465 each — voluntary and informational rather than mandatory during a home transaction.

Sellers are required to apply for a zoning information report no later than five days after entering an agreement for sale. If the report reveals violations, the problems must be fixed, often jeopardizing the sale of the house close to escrow.

Some real estate agents said the reports are often riddled with errors and performed by zoning staff members, not building officials who have expertise in the area.

City officials, however, believe the reports are essential to identifying illegal add-ons and remodels that may pose health and safety issues or adversely affect neighborhood culture and quality of life.

“This is the time to fix illegal alterations and add-ons that are dangerous,”​ Councilwoman Cathy Murillo said. “It is a time to catch safety violations.

“Zoning information reports are an important part of the process. I have always said that.”

In May, the grand jury issued a report requesting that the reports be voluntary and be used for informational purposes only, fueling emotions among many in the real estate community.

The City Council plans to send a letter to the grand jury explaining that it is working to improve the city’s zoning information report process, but it won’t make the reports voluntary.

According to city officials, about 45 ZIRs are prepared each month by staff and only about four of them have discrepancies.

If a zoning report reveals violations, such as an illegal dwelling unit, an illegal conversion to habitable space, or additions that cause health and safety risks, it’s up to the seller to fix the problem. The situation casts a shadow of doubt over the buyer’s enthusiasm for the deal, real estate agents say. 

Agents contend that city zoning officials are not qualified to make determinations about what is safe and what isn’t, and often end up making mistakes in reports.

Reyne Stapelmann, president of the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors, said zoning officials are not qualified to identify problems with building and safety. She said building officials are finding errors that aren’t there.

“​ZIRs are not the best fix,” said Stapelmann, who, in her capacity as SBAOR president, writes a monthly real estate column for Noozhawk.

The grand jury and real estate agents also argued that city records are incomplete. For example, they say, the reports often assert that a carport was illegally added on or a garage was moved, and it’s up to the sellers to prove that they didn’t commit the alleged violation.

In one case, according to the grand jury, a homeowner was forced to dig up a 30-year-old photo of himself — taken in front of the garage when he was 6 — to prove that the original placement had not changed.

Homeowner Joan Russell Price criticized the ZIRs.

“I love this city,” she said. “I have lived here for 25 years. I am here because I am ashamed of what the ZIR process does in our community.”

Price said a ZIR revealed an incorrect violation, and “it was on me to prove that I had not done anything to my house.”

She said she was forced to force to produce property tax records that showed the original square footage of the house to prove she had not added anything to the house.

“Just because the city didn’t have in their records, it was my fault and was going to get ripped down,” Price said.

Community Development director George Buell said the city is working to correct many of the issues that the grand jury has noted.

“As long as you have people working on something, there is going to be a factor of human error,”​ he said. “To guarantee it would trail off to nonexistent is probably not realistic.

“It is our hope to see that there is increased accuracy and consistency in those reports.”

The city had already corrected many of the concerns raised by the grand jury. The City Council took up the issue in 2013 and a working group met several times in 2014. The city decided to create “major” and “minor” categories.

They also plan to create a zoning checklist for zoning inspectors to use and create a frequently asked questions sheet. 

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss, a Realtor, expressed mixed feelings about the ZIRs. He said he understands the criticisms, but he also knows Realtors who support ZIRs.

“For a buyer it’s one thing, for a seller it’s another,” he said.

“I am not sure we should throw the baby out with the bath water, even though I would sort of like to. It is more important to preserve our neighborhoods even though it is a pain for us.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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