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Code Warriors

A new county appeals board launches an open rebellion against the Santa Cruz County planning department.

By Jessica Lussenhop

IT SEEMED as if plenty of folks at Monday night's monthly Building, Accessibility and Fire Code Appeals Board meeting were anticipating fireworks, including a sheriff's deputy who said, very sweetly, that he was there to "keep an eye on things." Though the tone of the meeting remained relatively calm, Supervisor Neal Coonerty opened oral communications with some choice words for a board of appointees that has proven exceptionally independent-minded: last week, BAFCAB member Daniel Bronson called a meeting to hear an appeal on a project by architect Cove Britton, a routine thing--except that the Planning Department had already deemed the matter outside the board's jurisdiction.

"Any suggestion that the BAFCAB is not answerable to anyone, including the Board of Supervisors, is ... erroneous," Coonerty read from a statement. "A member who believes that they cannot carry out his or her official duties in a manner consistent with the policies and regulations approved by the Board of Supervisors should reconsider his or her continued participation as an appointee."

Though no rotten fruit began to fly, neither the audience nor the BAFCAB board seemed to take this advice well, especially in light of the fact that former chairman Michael Bethke had apparently done just that early last week, writing in his resignation letter that he was incensed by the "brusque and condescending attitudes" of county planning management.

David Parks, who took Bronson's vice-chairman position last week after Bethke's departure opened the top slot, responded with a declaration of fealty to the highest principles. "Mr. Coonerty suggested I can resign," he said. "[But] I have an obligation to do what I feel is state law. I have to be true to myself."

Though last Wednesday's "rogue" meeting was canceled--according to Bronson because Britton withdrew on advice from his attorney--the electrical engineer and new BAFCAB chairman says his board had every right to consider the appeal. Bronson is concerned that the Planning Department is violating state law by acting as a "gatekeeper" to what the board should and shouldn't hear.

"We're trying to open the door to handle our responsibilities in an open and legal way. The Planning Department is behind the door leaning on it with county counsel aiding," he says. "It doesn't make sense to put the fox in charge of the henhouse."

Planning director Tom Burns stresses that BAFCAB is limited to hearing appeals on technical issues that arise in the building permit process, not on code enforcement, and says this is just the latest in a long fight between county residents who think the Planning department is overly prescriptive and heavy-handed with stop-work red tags, which BAFCAB has no authority over.

"At the end of the day, the Board of Supervisors is still in charge," Burns says.

Not so, says BAFCAB member and architect Marty Fiorovich, who says the limited power of her board is a potential violation of California State Building Code 108.8, which says in general language that appeals should be considered by members not employed by the jurisdiction.

While Fiorovich says that she got involved in the reinstatement of the appeals board because she thought state law was being ignored, Bronson says he came to his position with no preconceived notions. He says that hearing the frustration of people like Britton has inspired him to look more closely at the law. Though neither of the other board members, civil engineer Richard Irish or Parks, was available to comment, the board voted unanimously to form a subcommittee to send recommendations to the Board of Supervisors in the next two weeks on the legality of the codes dictating BAFCAB's duties and the Planning Department's compliance with law.

Supervisor Ellen Pirie, who was briefly in attendance at Monday's meeting, says she wasn't expecting the controversy. "I certainly thought by forming this board that there would be a very clear appeals outlet for building code and fire code. I thought it had sort of been taken care of, but it appears not," she says. "We probably have to do something. We can't just let it happen if we think they're violating the law or bringing some kind of liability on the county."

What happens next is a matter of opinion. While some whisper that the board may be axed, Bronson insists that county code can be made state-compliant. "It still can work," he says.

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