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Petaluma home owners face $41,500 bill for code violations

Petaluma officials Monday took another step in cracking down on an east side home long described as a neighborhood eyesore that serves as a refuge for drug users and criminals.

The city council voted 4-3 to approve a $41,500 lien against a home on the 1600 block of Weaverly Drive after homeowners did not pay outstanding fees associated with ongoing violations of the city’s code. Nestled on a quiet residential street, the home has racked up hundreds of calls for service and numerous arrests in past years. Conditions inside the home have been described as “substandard” while junk has piled up in the front and back yards, at times causing rodent infestations, according to city records.

The $41,500 in penalties was held over from an earlier set of code violations and subsequent hearings in 2015. At that time, a hearing officer ruled that the city could recoup part of the unpaid fines and associated costs it sought, but the rest of the funds would be suspended as long as the owners properly maintained the property for three years.

Violations, including a visible accumulation of mattresses and furniture outside, were once again noted in January. Notices of violation were issued and the city moved forward to seek the remainder of the money. A hearing officer once again ruled in favor of the city in its quest to collect those outstanding fees.

At Monday’s meeting, the property owners described the city’s action and neighbors’ ongoing complaints as racially-charged harassment that persists despite efforts to clean up the property.

“We’ve been in Petaluma too long for all this to start — we do believe it’s a racist problem,” Arty Richardson, the 86-year-old African American homeowner, told the council. “That’s what it seems like. All these neighbors have no business having cameras on the house. It makes me really angry.”

The property owners already paid more than $28,000 for violations after the 2015 hearings, and Arty Richardson’s daughter, Kim Richardson, said the family doesn’t have the funds to pay the city. She said putting a lien on the home, which would allow the city to collect the penalty when the home is sold, would hinder their efforts to refinance the house.

“I don’t know what to do,” Kim Richardson said. “I’m tying to work and get the money, but $41,000 just doesn’t fall from the trees.”

Joe Garcia, the city’s code enforcement officer, outlined the city’s efforts to work with the property owners to bring the home into compliance, though those attempts have historically failed.

“The property owners were given a chance to make the corrections … and keep it clean for three years and they barely went 18 months before it was back to where it was,” he said.

As of last week, no violations were noted, though fines for previous violations and administrative proceedings still remain unpaid, he said. Garcia will continue to check visible areas of the residence “until we’re positive that the problem has gone away,” he said.

The city council was divided over its approach, and Vice Mayor Teresa Barrett questioned the effectiveness of piling on more fines.

“I don’t see the deterrent associated with putting a lien on the house,” she said. “It’s not in any way going to stop or encourage the people living there to continue to keep the house good or to keep it from going bad.”

Councilman Gabe Kearney said the city should stick by its regulations.

“I don’t see how we can follow through on our regulations or have any teeth to our regulations if we don’t move forward on assessing the fees associated with them,” he said,

Meanwhile, the city is suing the family under California drug abatement statues designed to make property owners civilly responsible for illegal drug activities on their properties.

The complaint, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court in April, seeks $25,000 each from owners Arty and Kim Richardson, as well as from Kyle Richardson, a resident who was arrested in January on allegations relating to operating and maintaining a drug house. The city is also seeking a court order to board up the home for a year, the recovery of its associated costs and lawyer’s fees and a stay away order to bar Kyle Richardson from the home.

The stay away order was granted in May, though City Attorney Eric Danly said neighbors have observed Kyle Richardson at the property. That violation of the order allows the city to seek “stronger remedies,” Danly said, though he declined to elaborate.

Danly declined to comment on the status of the litigation, but a case management conference is scheduled next month, according to information from the court.

“As we expected would be the case, problems are ongoing,” he said. “We’re totally committed to working with the neighbors to make the neighborhood safe, as they deserve, and they’re working with us.”

In a separate proceeding, Kyle Richardson pleaded not guilty to a charge of operating or maintaining a drug house stemming from the January arrest. A preliminary hearing is set for July 20, according to court records.

Though it’s been several months since the last narcotics-related arrest at the home, police are still responding to frequent calls from neighbors about various disturbances, Lt. Brian Miller said. The number of recent calls and arrests was not immediately available, there were more than 632 calls for service and 54 arrests from January 2012 to Feb. 13, according to data from the department.

“The overall goal is to restore the house to an acceptable level – that’s what we strive for in the community here, for them to be a good neighbor and not be involved in criminal activity,” he said.

A neighbor, who declined to be named fearing reprisals, said issues at the home have been going on for at least three decades and called on the city to take more swift action.

“It’s just been ongoing for years and years,” the neighbor said. “I’ve just learned to live with it.”

Danly said though neighbors are frustrated, he hopes for a positive resolution.

“I believe that with patience and diligence, we will resolve this issue,” he said.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)