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20% in Violation of Earthquake Safety Law, City Says : Ventura: Property owners were ordered in 1991 to make changes. Some blame a lack of funds.

September 07, 1993|PEGGY Y. LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost two years after Ventura city leaders ordered downtown property owners to make parts of their buildings earthquake-proof, more than 20% of them are in violation of the law, city officials said.

Property owners who have not complied said the recession has made it difficult for them to scrape together the money needed for the alterations.

The law, passed in November, 1991, requires property owners to anchor parapets extending above the roof line, roofing tiles and anything else on unreinforced masonry buildings that could become flying debris in an earthquake.

Under pressure from financially concerned property owners, the City Council backed away from more extensive structural repairs that state lawmakers recommended to prevent buildings from collapsing during a large earthquake.

To meet the city's minimum requirements, local contractors estimate the cost of bringing old buildings up to city standards at between $5,000 to $20,000 per building.

The city code is being implemented in two phases. A total of 138 unreinforced masonry buildings must be repaired, most of which are in the downtown and Ventura Avenue area, the oldest parts of the city. Property owners on Main Street and California Street must do their repairs first, followed by property owners on Thompson Boulevard, east Main Street and Ventura Avenue.

According to state standards, buildings considered hazardous include such historical landmarks as the Peirano Building, San Buenaventura Mission and Holy Cross School, where about 270 students attend school and Mass daily.

The mission satisfied the city's earthquake requirements when its roof was repaired a decade ago. Work is scheduled to begin soon on the Holy Cross School, city officials said.

City officials last year sent notices to property owners in the first group, who were required to submit plans for approval about four months ago. In about two months, owners will be required to secure building permits to begin the work. All repairs in the first group of property owners must be completed by April, 1994.

The second group of owners received notices last month, and will be required to submit plans by next July. They must finish their repairs by July, 1995.

City officials said most property owners have submitted their plans for approval and are trying to comply, but about a dozen of the 57 property owners in the first phase have asked for extensions.

"Some of their excuses were kind of thin," said Bob Prodoehl, superintendent of building and safety. "But we've been trying to work with them and not be real nasty. We haven't taken any legal action yet."

In the event of a large earthquake in Ventura, some buildings in downtown could collapse, city officials warn.

Geologists believe that the Ventura area is due for a large earthquake within the next 50 to 100 years. Seismic studies have shown that mounting pressure on the region's fault lines could result in an earthquake registering as high as magnitude 7.5.

The last major earthquake to hit the immediate area occurred about 130 years ago, before most of these buildings were constructed.

Even though the city is requiring only minimal changes, Prodoehl said compliance is essential for building owners to protect people from falling debris in the event of an earthquake.

"They first thing to fail is the roofing tile and the parapet," Prodoehl said. "Ventura hasn't had a lot of large earthquakes, but you can never tell if you'll have an earthquake."

Bill Chilcutt, a real estate broker who owns three buildings downtown, said, "I'm not in compliance, but I can't afford it."

Chilcutt said he has two vacancies and two tenants who have fallen behind in their rent payments and another tenant who left owing three months rent.

He said has received two bids for repairs on his buildings, both about $22,000, which is too expensive for him to pay now.

One building will need to have its parapets anchored and another will require roof tiles being secured, he said. "It's really bad timing, and the city is touting itself as being business-friendly, and it ain't."

Chilcutt questioned the need for the ordinance, pointing out that no one in Ventura has ever been killed by tumbling parapets or roof tiles. He said he expects to comply within a year, but only reluctantly. "I don't have any choice. They can fine me, they can come and get me."

According to the ordinance, violations are considered a misdemeanor. Property owners can be fined up to $1,000 and/or imprisoned up to six months.

Councilman Todd Collart, who stressed that the ordinance is necessary for public safety, agreed that the recession has prevented some property owners from obeying the law.

"The economy got in the way," Collart said. "I will not be calling for their immediate incarceration."

Prodoehl said he was not surprised by the number of property owners dragging their feet. "With all the outcry we had when it was passed, it's expected."

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