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Monday, January 21 , 2019, 8:24 am | Fair 52º


Santa Barbara Realtors, City Council Prepare for Battle Over Zoning Information Reports

Santa Barbara is ready for a fight.

The Santa Barbara City Council voted 7-0 this week to spend up to $110,000 on an outside law firm to battle a Santa Barbara Association of Realtors lawsuit.

The city contracted with Burke, Williams & Sorensen to help against the Realtors’ lawsuit challenging the necessity of zoning information reports.

“We believe the above-stated authorization will provide sufficient funding to take this matter to trial,” wrote City Attorney Ariel Calonne in a memo to the City Council.

The Realtors Association filed the complaint on Oct. 19, alleging that the city’s zoning information reports violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits government searches of private property without a warrant.

“Santa Barbara singles out home sellers and coerces them into giving up their vital Fourth Amendment privacy protections,” said Pacific Legal Foundation Senior Attorney Meriem Hubbard, who is handling the case. “They’re pressured to allow city agents to roam through their living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, closets, and attics without any evidence that the house has any problems."

Although the city claims sellers may decline searches, they risk penalties if they do so, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Under the ordinance, any seller who fails to pay the inspection fee and allow the government agents inside can be convicted of a misdemeanor and fined up to $500.

“Putting your home on the market should not mean mortgaging your constitutional rights,” she said. “Santa Barbara’s targeting of home sellers for searches and snooping must end, and the unconstitutional law that sanctions it must be struck down.”

The law requires home sellers to apply for a zoning inspection report and pay a $475 fee for the inspection process within five days of a sale agreement.

The Zoning Department staffers who conduct them aren’t licensed as building inspectors or surveyors.

Pacific Legal Foundation states that even though the city began allowing sellers to opt out of the searches, while paying for an exterior inspection from the sidewalk or street, “This is an illusory change,” said Hubbard.

“Sellers are still coerced into allowing city searches. Although they can technically refuse an inspection, the city notifies the buyer if they do so. And the ordinance remains unchanged. It still provides for criminally prosecuting and fining people who sell their homes without allowing the government inspectors in.”

If the report reveals violations at the home, the problems must be fixed, potentially jeopardizing the sale of the house.

Real estate agents claim the reports often contain errors, and since they are performed by zoning staff members, not building officials, they lack the expertise to make such determinations.

City officials, however, contend 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.

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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