SANTA ANA — David Lopez gets along fine with most of his neighbors in the Riverview West neighborhood; it's the junked Chevy vans, Ford Thunderbirds and Volkswagen Beetles that drive him crazy.
"This is one of my pet peeves," said Lopez, 60, a retired custodian. "I hate to just see [inoperative] cars parked in driveways."
With the help of his neighbors, Lopez has turned his pet peeve into a grass-roots campaign that is changing the way the city deals with junked and abandoned cars.
"We call them 'metal graffiti,' " resident David Murray said.
Due in large part to neighborhood complaints, police issued warnings for 1,467 abandoned or inoperative vehicles citywide in 1996, Police Cpl. Eric Mattke said. The effort, including towing more than 150 of the vehicles, earned the department $480,564 from the state Abandoned Vehicle Trust Fund--the largest amount for any Orange County city, according to officials.
The state program, funded by a $1 service fee on registered vehicles, offers reimbursement to departments as an incentive to remove abandoned cars for safety and aesthetic reasons. As of October, police have issued 1,066 notices for abandoned vehicles this year, with the number expected to exceed last year's total because of increased community awareness, Mattke said.
Still, Lopez said he continues to see dozens of inoperative vehicles in his neighborhood, and he told the City Council this year that more needs to be done.
Enlisting other city neighborhoods in his fight, Lopez suggested that code enforcement officers take over the responsibility for removing junked vehicles, leaving police to focus on more pressing issues.
The council accepted Lopez's recommendation, noting that Community Preservation inspectors already are responsible for enforcing other land-use laws. Also, code enforcement officers maintain contact with neighborhood associations, where many of the complaints originate. The Police Department supported the change.
Under the new policy, vehicle or property owners who fail to remove problem cars after receiving a notice may owe the city for removal and administrative costs.
Santa Ana is not alone in pursuing abandoned vehicles. In Orange County, Huntington Beach recently joined the state abandoned vehicle program. In Los Angeles, the City Council launched the Neighborhood Codewatch program for volunteers to comb the streets for code violations including abandoned vehicles.
Santa Ana police said Riverview West probably doesn't have any more abandoned vehicles than other neighborhoods. Rather, they say, it was Lopez's personal crusade that made the difference.
On a recent drive through Riverview West, rows of modest single-family homes west of the Santa Ana River, Lopez pointed to dozens of cars he labels "in-op," or inoperative.
On narrow Quigley Lane, Lopez pointed to a white Chevy van covered with a tarp in a backyard. On West 6th Street, he eyed a black Volkswagen Beetle parked in the middle of a grass yard. And on West 3rd Street, Lopez came across a gold Ford Thunderbird.
Lopez said he looks for telltale "in-op" signs, including weeds growing through wheels and car interiors full of junk--a giveaway that the vehicle has become a storage cabinet. The T-Bird Lopez came across was an easy call: The car had no engine.
Lopez, a volunteer community preservation officer, estimates that he has filed about 350 complaints over the years on cars he believes are abandoned.
Community Preservation Manager Bruce Dunams does not doubt that plenty of vehicles need to be towed away. "There's a lot of junkers out there," he said.
Alberta Christy, head of the Communication Linkage Committee that coordinates city neighborhood associations, has supported the fight. "It's like a rash," Christy said. Unless you take preventive measures, "it's going to happen all over."
Lopez said he believes that junked vehicles, at least in his neighborhood of $150,000 homes, are related to economics.
He said that when residents need to repair one car, it may be cheaper to buy another, cannibalize it for parts, and do the repairs themselves. Over time, residents accumulate two or three junked cars.
Code enforcement officers will take over the responsibility for junked cars in January. Police meanwhile have kept up enforcement.
Lopez's wife, Marsha, said she's noticed a pleasant side effect of the abatement effort: Residents have branched out to other work including maintaining lawns and painting houses.
"It's getting better all over," she said.
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Bounded by: Westminster Avenue on the north, Edinger Avenue on the south, Harbor Boulevard on the east, and the city limits on the west near Euclid Street
Population: About 35,000
Hot topic: Abandoned and inoperative vehicles