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Santa Clarita endeavors to keep city pretty

Advice, volunteers, even financial aid are offered to help errant homeowners get their yards up to code.

October 07, 2008|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

In August, Kevin and Danet Davis got a letter from the City of Santa Clarita informing them that the yard and parkway in front of their house were not up to city standards.

The dirt and weeds had to go -- and preferably be replaced by vegetation or other landscaping -- and the city gave the Davises two months to make adjustments.

But unlike cities that merely issue citations, Santa Clarita also offered a helping hand.

The Davises didn't qualify for financial help, but they planned to make use of the city's volunteer services program. Kevin Davis set about clearing the dirt and weeds, and made preparations to lay a parkway that will feature a carpet of sandy-colored pebbles.

"The city sparked us to move forward, and we like it a lot," said Davis, a first-time homeowner who moved to the Canyon Country neighborhood from Inglewood 18 months ago with his wife, two children and two dogs. "We appreciate what the city is doing to keep the community moving forward and improve neighborhoods. With the economy the way it is, the best asset you have is your home, and we're hoping to keep up its value."

That's the attitude city officials are hoping other residents will adopt as a part of Santa Clarita's new Extreme Neighborhood Makeover program. It aims to tackle a variety of unsightly problems: poor landscaping, overgrown lawns, clutter, graffiti, junk cars and trucks on front lawns and driveways.

"The city had always taken a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to what we call code enforcement," said city spokeswoman Gail Ortiz. "People would call in [violations]. The city would do a report."

But the eyesores began to fester. "We started to see some of our older neighborhoods enter a period of decline, and it was happening quite rapidly," Ortiz said.

The city started issuing citations, but when those met with resistance, Ortiz recalled, officials brainstormed a different strategy.

They decided to plant trees and eradicate graffiti in certain neighborhoods, hoping residents would see that "the city really cared about them," she said. "Before, the thought was that the city was just coming in . . . and issuing citations."

Then, this year, a new idea was launched. The concept was inspired by a television show, "Extreme Makeover" -- fitting for a city often used for filming.

In June, the city sent memos to Canyon Country residents emphasizing its commitment "to ensuring that Santa Clarita remains safe and maintains its quality appearance." The letter said residents would need to help, and it listed examples of violations.

Neighbors were invited to a block party to meet officials from city departments, such as street maintenance and community services, and to consult with licensed contractors who agreed to provide residents with discounts for goods and services.

Residents were also advised that a community preservation officer would visit their streets to see whether problems existed.

Ortiz said there are typically 1,700 to 2,000 code-violation cases on file each year. Fines for a first offense can range from $25 to $150 a day per infringement, depending on the violation.

But Curtis Williams, Santa Clarita's senior community-preservation officer, said the city prefers to encourage residents to make improvements rather than cite them.

In Kevin Davis' neighborhood of about 130 homes, the city found 59 properties with problems. They included trash bins in public view, improperly stored inoperable vehicles and illegally extended driveways.

There were also 70 street trees missing, Ortiz said. Neighbors had cut them down, complaining of messy leaves or roots that interfered with plumbing.

Since the block party in Canyon Country, the city's Urban Forestry division, assisted by neighborhood volunteers, has planted about 20 ash and camphor trees, which will eventually provide canopies and have less invasive roots during their first 20 years of life, according to Urban Forestry supervisor Robert Sartain.

Repairs have also been made to 560 feet of sidewalk and 575 feet of driveway aprons. And more than a dozen potholes, stop signs and street identification markers have been fixed.

Neighbors have also done their part, Williams said.

"We had no lawns whatsoever," he recalled. "Now people have planted, sown seeds, weeded their frontyards . . . and many broken cars have been removed."

City officials acknowledged that tougher economic times have caused some homeowners to neglect their property. Councilwoman Marsha McLean said that while she sympathizes with residents who are feeling financially burdened, there are many free or inexpensive ways to help beautify their neighborhoods, such as cleaning up trash.

Some residents are eligible for financial assistance. A household of five must earn less than $60,650 annually to qualify. For a household of two, the income cap is $48,500. And, like the Davises, property owners are linked with volunteer groups who can work with residents for free.

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