Cowboys and $100,000 Fines

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As you may know, the Association Board gave itself fining power last year (current fine schedule here). These are not small fines. Not maintaining your property will cost you $10,000, and $3,000 per week while not corrected. See below for one person who was fined over $100,000. Last fiscal year, the Association imposed over $300,000 in total fines.

No Cure (Period)

I met Paul Seitz for the first time at the Rancho Santa Fe Inn. He and his 7 year old daughter had recently participated in the July 4th parade by riding their horses donned with an American flag through the parade route. At the Inn, he cut quite the figure with his cowboy boots, jeans, large belt buckle and cowboy hat.  He’s an affable guy who will look you in the eye while giving you a firm handshake.

He got hit with a fine in April after he had complied with a stop work order and after he had been working to cure the problem. 

It turns out that I had written about this 12 acre horse property almost two years ago and then made a plea to the Association to work with property owners of challenged properties like these so that they can fix them.

And here we have the Association fining the owner when he actually tries to do that. You can’t make this stuff up.

The backstory is complex, but the gist is that the previous tenant of the property had approved plans to develop the property. Paul had asked an Association employee if he could use those plans to start renovating the property and was told yes. So he moved some pasture fences as his horses were getting hurt with the existing fencing. That’s when he got hit with a stop work order and a $10,000 fine. The Association apparently was now deeming those plans invalid (over a year old). 

After much staff discussion back and forth, it was determined that the fine amount was incorrect – a non-permitted fence move should have been only a $2,000 fine. He immediately tried to correct this by both discussing the old plans as well as submitting new ones, which were eventually approved by the CDRC. On April 4th, he pleaded his case in front of the Board. They were unimpressed and maintained the $2,000 fine.

Paul remarks “You know it’s sad they’re going to fine someone that wants to improve and make a property look better!  They say fix it and you won’t get fined… well that’s a lie.”

Too Poor? Here, Pay This $108,250 Fine

During the June 11th Board meeting member input session, 27 year member Linda Leong complained that she had been hit with $108,250 worth of fines for failure to keep her property maintained. This was an original $10,000 fine and a succession of $3,000 per week fines before she tried to address the complaint. The letter from the Association complained about:

  • An old fence
  • 12-15 trash cans in her driveway
  • An old refrigerator in the driveway
  • Weeds and three dead trees

As she told the Board, the punishment didn’t fit the crime. Obviously she ignored the Association for too long before addressing it. Nonetheless, this appears to be both excessive and inconsistent.

Municipalities issuing excessive fines are in the news lately since the Supreme Court weighed in on the matter earlier this year. See this article for a recent example of an excessive $100,000 municipal fine in Florida. 

By the way, don’t bother looking for information about this in the Board minutes for June 11th, even though it is of relevant interest to all members. This information was discussed in the Board meeting, yet is “documented” there with these words: “Two members shared input.”. 

Linda states that while she has fixed the problems the Association complained about, the fine is still growing and has now been sent to a collection agency. She says that after she had fixed the issues, the weekly fines got raised to $5,000, and she does not know why. Of this entire episode, she says “We have too many enemies in the political, business and religious world to have to deal with an organization who works against its members instead of simply lending a helping hand that neighbors should be doing in the first place.”.

(In)consistency

In addition to the excessive nature of these fines, which have no limit and can literally bankrupt you, they do not appear to be consistently applied. I’ve seen far worse properties in the ranch than the description of Leong’s violations. You begin to wonder whose bad side did she get on? Even worse, with the Board appearing to relish levying fines even after members cure their violations as with the horse property above, it appears no one is safe. 

And that brings up a series of questions.

Since one of the criteria of failing to maintain a property is harboring a dead tree, almost all Rancho properties are guilty. What is the criteria for selecting which properties get the failure to maintain property notice? Do people with annoying neighbors that complain about everything they do get tagged with property maintenance violations at a higher rate?

Are Board members allowed to bring complaints about other members? Since the Board is relatively small, it wouldn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see how Board members could influence other Board members to vote for a fine.

What’s the process after receiving a fine notice? Will fines continue to accumulate on a weekly basis even as the person is trying to cure? Since it can take months to get through a CDRC approval process, are fines suspended during that period or do they continue to grow? The Association’s fine schedule is silent on these kinds of important questions.

Suggestions

Dare I offer some suggestions?

First, for all members reading this: take fines seriously. Many of them have weekly continuing fines.

For the new full time code enforcement staff officer: Please look at tightening up the language in the fine schedule to take out ambiguity. Lay out the precise unambiguous process for levying fines, potential cures, and redress. And we need to know what the criteria is for issuing fines, especially property maintenance fines.

For the Board: Do we really need $100,000 fines? Once people cure their transgressions, do we need to continue fining them? Is the fine an enforcement mechanism or is it punishment? 

For the Association: Publish a regular list of fines handed out with dollar amounts and for what infraction, names omitted, of course. 

 


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