USA — An independent hearing officer has cut in half a nearly $35,000 tax lien placed on a backcountry parcel after county code-enforcement officers had the land cleared against the owners wishes.
It is the first time in at least three years that county officials have seen such an enforcement decision reversed. Until the ruling by attorneyPeter Jensen, the county had prevailed in 15 of 15 administrative hearings.
Jensen decided the county could only justify charges of $17,484 out of the $34,556 it billed the couple for clearance work performed by a contractor before a judge stopped the job last August.
County planning officials said they disagreed with that finding but maintained the overall ruling validated their belief that the property was a hazard. The ruling supported the main thrust of the countys case, Pam Elias, the county code-enforcement chief, said in a statement.
The owners of the 1.7-acre vacant lot in Julian were unhappy with the decision.
Some people would see it as favorable. I dont, said Laura Rodriguez of Chula Vista, who owns the property with her husband, Jaime. I dont think they took into consideration a lot of the facts that we showed.
The dispute began in early 2008, when the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection tagged the Azalea Avenue property as a fire threat because of dead and dying vegetation and referred the case to county code enforcement.
In April 2008, the county sent Rodriguez a letter informing her the case was closed, but the county reversed course later that year and ordered the property cleared.
The Rodriguezes said they tried for months to get the county to clarify the problem and but got no explanation.
More than a year later, the county issued a 24-hour notice and hired a contractor for almost $50,000 to clear the property.
The property owners went to court and a judge agreed to halt the cleanup project in mid-job. The Rodriguezes hired their own crew to finish the job for much less.
The lien was meant to recover the countys cost for work completed before it was stopped by the judge.
The Rodriguezes and their attorney argued at the administrative appeal last month that there was no immediate fire threat and the county should have given them more notice and time to meet brush-clearance rules.
A Cal Fire official testified that the hazard was not an immediate threat. A county code-enforcement official told Jensen that any threat could be considered immediate.
In his ruling signed Dec. 24, Jensen said it was determined from the evidence that an immediate clearance was necessary.