Illegal additions alleged to be 'public nuisance'

By Robert J. Bruss

In 1999, Jimmy Jen purchased a dilapidated single-family house. Based on prior experiences with the local building inspectors, he applied for a permit to do only $2,500 of minor dry-rot repairs.

Instead, Jen added a two-room extension, plus a second-floor addition, altered the basement to create four habitable rooms and a garage, constructed new decks on the roof, and installed extensive new plumbing and electrical wiring.

The building inspector learned about the work that was not authorized by the building permit for dry-rot repairs. A "stop-work notice" was posted at the house, but Jen continued work. He also ignored a second stop-work notice and continued construction.

In 2000, Jen submitted another building permit application. But the building inspection department and the city-planning department ruled the nonpermitted work was a public nuisance that had to be removed.

Jen was ordered to remove the entire three-story addition and obtain a new building permit to rebuild. But he refused to comply.

In late 2000, the city filed this lawsuit against Jen, alleging a public nuisance (there were no fire-stops between floors in the construction), violation of state housing laws, failure to comply with an abatement order, and unlawful business practices.

If you were the judge, would you impose a civil fine on Jen and order him to pay the city's legal expenses to enforce its building permit rules?

The judge said yes!

The evidence in this case is overwhelming, the judge began, that Jimmy Jen did not comply with city building requirements to obtain a permit before beginning construction work.

Even after being cited for building permit violations, Jen continued construction and he was cited again, the judge explained.

When a property owner fails to obtain building permits before beginning construction, the city is entitled to order the illegal construction demolished, the judge emphasized.

Because Jen was such a flagrant law violator, he is ordered to pay a $150,000 civil fine plus the city's attorney fees of $837,000, the judge ruled.

Based on the 2006 California Court of Appeals decision in City and County of San Francisco, 37 Cal.Rptr.3d 454.