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Shop Owner, City Have a Score to Settle

Rebecca Apodaca, Laguna Hills head to court. The home business owner says she predates city codes.

May 18, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Rebecca Apodaca never thought it would come to this. But after more than two years of fighting the city of Laguna Hills over the right to run her home-based musical instrument repair and rental shop, she is going to court.

Laguna Hills officials won't say how much the city is spending on the case, which is to be heard Monday in Orange County Superior Court, only that Apodaca is in violation of several local codes and they have no choice but to pursue the matter.

"I don't think the city has ever shut anybody down," said City Atty. Dan Spradlin. "This would be a first. We try to enforce the codes uniformly with a degree of compassion, but you can't turn your back on health and safety issues."

City officials say Apodaca is operating a retail business in a residential neighborhood, selling sheet music and accessories for instruments. "She can do bookkeeping and Internet business, but not retail," Spradlin said.

The 49-year-old single mother -- who has operated A&D Music out of her garage and home more than two dozen years, well before Laguna Hills' existence -- insists she has cut down on the retail business she does from the house.

"Ninety percent of our income is from rentals and repairs, mostly to schoolchildren in Orange County," said Apodaca, who is putting her daughter through college. "Less than 10% of my business is in retail sales, and half of that is done by the telephone. For people walking in, we're talking about 3% to 4%."

But where should the city draw the line, Spradlin asked. "At 3%, 4%? We're not seeking to close her business. All we're asking is that she relocate that aspect of her business to an appropriate place."

The city began asking Apodaca to comply with its codes in the fall of 2000. It took legal action in 2001. Apodaca countersued last year, seeking $700,000 in damages to her business and the right to continue operating.

Apodaca wonders how she has suddenly become a lawbreaker. The hilly pocket of modest homes in an area known as Laguna Terrace was unincorporated until 1996.

"The contract I signed with the county in 1978, I lived up to those codes," said Apodaca, as she looked over a badly bent flute and tried to decide if it were worth repairing. "Most cities will grandfather those codes. The city codes are very vague. To my knowledge, I'm in compliance."

But Spradlin said the city's codes, and Apodaca's violations, couldn't be more clear-cut.

"She has a wall where her garage door is supposed to be, so there's not adequate ventilation and that's a fire hazard," Spradlin said. "She also has a doorway from her garage into a bedroom, and that would be a violation in any city. It's not safe. The doorway would need to be sealed off because you can get smoke in the bedroom."

Apodaca argues that the garage was enclosed when she bought the house in 1978, and she says no one sleeps in the bedroom adjacent to the garage.

"There are hundreds of people running businesses out of their homes in Laguna Hills and thousands more in Orange County," Apodaca said. "Why are they focusing on me? I thought we could come to an amicable agreement on this. I can't believe how far they've taken this."

Neither can her neighbors.

Lillian Silva, who has lived two doors down for 20 years, described Apodaca as a model neighbor.

"I don't know what the fuss is all about," Silva said. "She's an exemplary neighbor and she's just trying to make a living. This whole thing is just ridiculous."

Kellie Plummer, who has lived next door to A&D Music for 10 years, said she has never had problems with Apodaca.

"She's no trouble," Plummer said. "We make more noise on Friday night with our kids than she ever does."

But city officials say not everyone in the neighborhood has been so accepting.

Spradlin said the city was alerted to Apodaca's code violations by neighbors.

"More than one person in the immediate vicinity complained," he said. "They are choosing to remain anonymous."

But even if the entire neighborhood supported Apodaca, city officials say, the health and safety violations cannot be tolerated.

Apodaca said that relocating her business is probably not a viable option if she loses her suit because she is about to have a second hip replacement surgery.

"If the city forces me to shut down, I go on disability and become a drain to society," she said. "I don't think that should be my reward to Orange County after 25 years of hard work."

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