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It Takes a Village: Neighbors Must Unite to Fight Public Nuisances

Individuals acting together can force even the most difficult property owners to clean up or get out.

October 10, 1999|JIM WALKER | Jim Walker, a "community coach," writes and speaks on organizing neighborhoods. He is director of Neighborhood Net-Works in Santa Ana and can be reached at (714) 966-9083

After years of work, commendations are in order for neighbors who made the system work. Recently, a Huntington Beach property owner lost her house for permitting conditions that one code enforcement officer said amounted to "the most blighted house in Orange County."

For more than a decade, neighbors pleaded for help to get the property of Elena Zagustin, a professor, brought up to a minimum standard of health and safety. Neighbors even offered to clean up and maintain the yard.

Yet Zagustin rejected neighbors' help, and antagonism grew. Neighbors made repeated calls to city and county agencies for help. Finally, the neighbors organized and tried to mediate their differences with the professor. Only when everything else had failed did neighbors go to Small Claims Court.

With no attorneys and only a $20 filing fee, Small Claims Court can permit a host of public nuisances to be addressed within a few weeks. California law recognizes all property owners as having the right to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors. If one neighbor becomes so antagonistic as to constitute a "public nuisance," he or she can be sued by neighbors for causing emotional distress. Already this tactic has been used successfully to get rid of gangs and drug houses as well as blighted property in Orange County.

As an organized neighborhood, individuals can act together and force a public nuisance to clean up or get out. When groups of 20 people or more gather to add up each individual's $5,000 claim, they can amass a total liability of more than $100,000 against a property owner responsible for permitting a public nuisance. And keep in mind that a judge's role is not only to protect the innocent but also to prevent any unwarranted demands being made by neighbors. By all means, check with the proper authorities, and even review your predicament with an attorney, before pursuing legal action.

If the small-claims tactic is used well and luck is with you, court may be avoided altogether. Monetary liability can force even the most difficult property owners into mediation, in which issues can often be resolved. Prepare to work with your neighbors and as a "community preservation alliance" with all appropriate departments and agencies in your city and county.

Remember the old proverb that there is opportunity in danger. There is no better incentive than a local public nuisance to organize the people where you live and make your neighborhood a priority for your city's leaders. Most important, make sure perceived faults are not of your own making. Act in good faith as good neighbors.

Perceptions and standards of living can be quite different from person to person and from neighborhood to neighborhood. State your problem well, document its history and take steps to ask people responsible for a problem to correct it. Someone not familiar with your problem, your neighborhood or you is going to be asking who is the real problem, your neighbor or you.

No one wants more litigation. But if you remain sleepless at night or are suffering the anguish of living in a situation that could destroy life or property, it is a blessing to know you can do something about it with Small Claims Court faster than most any other authority can react.

However, if you would rather move than fight for your right to live in peace and harmony, you could still find yourself held hostage by a neighborhood bad apple. Once again, California state law's Real Estate Transfer Disclosure Statement requires that you reveal to a buyer any known defects in your house in addition to any known public nuisances in the neighborhood. This means a buyer can void a house sale and sue you if you were not honest about your neighbors as well as your house.

People can learn more about this strategy, free of charge, in weekly classes offered by the county's Small Claims Court Advisory Program. One should always contact local police and proper authorities before taking any provocative action. Most often you will find some fine people within the system willing to work with you in a "community preservation alliance."

Furthermore, the lesson of the Zagustin event should not be lost on city officials. If city leaders truly understand the value of active organized citizens, they can improve a community's overall quality of life. We all need to recognize local citizens as the most undeveloped resource we have.

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