Carports a hot topic in Atwater

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comDecember 12, 2013 

— Carports are popping up in front of countless Atwater homes, and the issue is dividing some city residents.

Carports have been a topic of debate in Atwater since 2008, with the issue bouncing back and forth between the City Council and Planning Commission numerous times.

The city’s ordinance outlines specific requirements for the size, measurement and location of carports, but city officials said most carports don’t meet those standards – and don’t even have a building permit.

It’s unclear how many carports don’t have permits in Atwater, but officials said the ones that violate the ordinance’s guidelines likely don’t have permits. Any structure over 120 square feet needs a building permit, according to city officials, which can cost a couple of hundred dollars.

The city’s ordinance requires carports to be no higher than 16 feet, not exceed 500 square feet and must be set back 20 feet from the curb.

Residents aren’t following those requirements, said Atwater police Lt. Sam Joseph, and it’s causing a traffic and safety concern for the city.

“If they’re too big and they’re blocking the sidewalk, kids can run into them and they block view of traffic,” Joseph explained. “People are angry because they are making these carports without city approval and in sizes that are disrupting safety.”

The issue was discussed at the Planning Commission meeting Wednesday, after Councilman Jeff Rivero pulled it from the Nov. 12 City Council meeting agenda and recommended it go before the commission for review.

Commissioners suggested no changes to the current ordinance Wednesday. Instead, they recommended more severe consequences and penalties for those who violate the requirements of the ordinance.

“We feel the ordinance itself is sufficient, our problem is the enforcement,” said Planning Commissioner Fred Warchol. “The penalties for this are not effective, according to our city attorney.”

Enforcement is a challenge in a city with only one code enforcement officer, especially with carports popping up more rapidly than ever in the past few months, city officials said.

“We have one building inspector; we can’t be everywhere,” said Scott McBride, Atwater community development director. He said he’s had two to three people asking about carports each week for the past two or three months. “People can install them in an hour or two at the most. A lot of them go up on the weekends, when we’re not working.”

When a carport is not permitted or violates the ordinance, the code enforcement officer issues a citation, but there’s not a lot of enforcement after that, Warchol said.

“It could be a $20 or $50 fine, and if it’s ignored, the city has very little options after that,” Warchol said. “The current penalties are so minor, and the city has very little recourse after that.”

Residents spoke out about the issue at the City Council meeting last month before the item was removed and referred back to the Planning Commission.

Gary Gillard said he paid twice as much to build a carport in front of his home, only to have the city stop the work and require a permit.

“I don’t think it’s fair that there are so many carports all over town in worse condition than mine,” he said. “I was stopped, and I was not aware of needing a permit … it doesn’t take away from the quality of the house or neighborhood.”

People sounded off about the city of Atwater looking at stiffer consequences for carports on the Merced Sun-Star’s Facebook page:

“I think if it’s my property then I can put what I want on it as long its not a hazard to someone life,” said Tamber Bliss. “The city can butt out.”

“People should be able to do whatever they want on their property,” Nicole Simons chimed in. “The city needs to stay out of it. Period.”

“I wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood where people put up carports to cover the merchandise they sell by turning their driveways into miniature flea markets,” Joseph Magsalay said, offering the other side. “If it’s for a car, I don’t see a problem. If it’s for storage of other things, I wouldn’t want it in my neighborhood.”

The issue might be discussed at the next Atwater City Council meeting on Jan. 13, when the council will get a verbal update on the Planning Commission’s recommendation, McBride said.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209)385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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