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Santa Barbara Voters Could Get the Option to Decide Future of ZIRs

By Anthony SanFilippo

The City of Santa Barbara’s Zoning Information Report (ZIR) has been a point of contention for at least a decade.

There have been meetings, negotiations, law suits, you name it.

And the issue still isn’t resolved.

Now, there is a groundswell of support to try and get the removal of ZIRs on the ballot for the 2019 general election.

ABOUT ZIRs

ZIRs were first established in the 1970s to provide information to potential homebuyers regarding the zoning and permitted use of a property based on records research and a physical site inspection.

At the time, getting one of these reports cost about $25 and played an important role in preventing overcrowding in neighborhoods and serve as a “health and safety” check to make sure there weren’t unpermitted rentals of garages or rooms in the downtown homes.

But now, ZIRs have evolved into so much more and force a lot of unnecessary red tape to be cut through. The cost of a ZIR has skyrocketed to up to $900 and is required no later than five days after entering a sales contract, often in the middle of escrow. They also require a persnickety selection of assessments from the city’s Community Development Department (CDD) for zoning laws or building codes. often these “violations” are then required to be rectified by the current owner, many times at a significant cost, before the city allows the sale to be finalized.

“We worked with the City of Santa Barbara for 10 years on issues of accountability, reliability, accuracy and affordability of ZIRs,” said Thomas Schultheis, president of the Santa Barbara Association of REALTORS® (SBAOR). “Since we were unable to persuade City leaders to make meaningful changes to the unfair and costly reports, we have launched an initiative to protect Santa Barbara homeowners.”

A 2015 Santa Barbara Grand Jury report indicated that while the intent of the ordinance that created ZIRs is understandable, it’s application today is tricky.

THE PROBLEM WITH ZIRs

ZIRs are often unreliable and lack real accountability. There are often discrepancies and many times files have gotten lost. There have been several instances where a ZIR on a property was clear but the next ZIR on the same unchanged property had violations, which could make owners who did nothing wrong suddenly have to pay for the sins of a previous owner, all because of an incomplete ZIR that occurred during their purchase of the property.

The problem is the CDD is unrelenting on these types of issues, even when inconsistencies in the ZIRs prevent sales of properties from happening.

The grand jury report said, “The past-mistakes-must-be-corrected attitude [of the CDD] is unprofessional and unfair to the innocent people simply trying to sell their homes… The onus should be on the city to prove that a violation exists, and not on the seller to prove that one does not exist.”

There have been instances of potential sellers trying to prove their cases with old blueprints of their property. In some cases, where they weren’t able to get out from under their unfair ZIR, the sellers were forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fix their property unnecessarily just to sell it.

“Once the city affixes its official seal to the document, it should stand behind its staff and the information it provides,” wrote the Grand Jury. Sadly, that hasn’t been the case.

The city ignored the Grand Jury report and stuck by the need for ZIRs despite the fact that about 90 percent of California cities do not use them.

The city was sued by the Santa Barbara Association of REALTORS® (SBAOR) in 2017. The lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of ZIRs, claiming they imposed unconstitutional conditions on the Fourth Amendment right of homeowners to be free from unreasonable searches.

As soon as the lawsuit was filed, the city resorted to “drive-by” ZIRs, which meant that a report was created without the inspector actually entering the property and basing it solely on his/her view from the sidewalk.

The lawsuit was thrown out on a time-barred technicality, and the consternation concerning ZIRs has now moved into its second decade.

EFFORTS TO FIX ZIRs

The City has met with interested parties, including SBAOR, to consider compromises. These compromises included:

  • making ZIRs voluntary
  • privatizing the program with reports sent to the city
  • grandfathering violations found today that weren’t in previous reports
  • having ZIRs be part of the permitting process instead of occurring during the point-of-sale
  • giving the Staff Hearing Officer authority to allow violations found today that weren’t in previous reports
  • create an administrative appeal process so homeowners could challenge or question violations

None of these compromises were accepted by the City.

Santa Barbara did budge by allowing for condominiums to become optional for ZIRs. They also allowed for the creation of a ZIR working group between planning commissioners and SBAOR members that identified and categorized major and minor violations, and identified other manners of dealing with some discrepancies, including a limited appeals process.

However, despite these changes, the cost of a ZIR, the unreliability of the information in a ZIR and the accountability of the reports still exist.
If a petition to get this put on the November ballot begins to circulate, 10 thousand signatures will be required. If it makes it onto the ballot, city voters can vote to have it repealed, eliminating a long-standing and divisive element of the city’s bureaucracy.

“We need to protect Santa Barbara homeowners from this outdated and unnecessary city ordinance that requires sellers to pay hundreds of dollars to have a zoning inspector come to their home to look for violations,” Schultheis said. “As REALTORS®, we are the only organization protecting homeowners from unreasonable laws that undermine the rights of homeownership. We must step up and do what is right.”


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