Is Chula Vista Unfriendly to Businesses?
Why are small businesses important to a city? Unlike large corporations where the profits go to shareholders and corporate offices the profits of a small business stay in the city where it is located. Often the owner and workers live in the city as well. They invest in homes, buy in the local stores, support the local schools. When they need a lawyer, accountant or other help they patronize another local business. The multiplier effect of a small business is huge. Big Corporations make donations now and again, but when their profit is considered, it is like putting 25 cents in the collection plate at church. Small businesses can and do provide significant economic development within a city, when they are nurtured and encouraged. This is a link to a radio program where Michael Shuman, Vice President for Enterprise Development, Training and Development Corporation; Author, "The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition" (Berrett-Koehler), Manny Hidalgo, Executive Director, Latino Economic Development Corporation and Harriet Tregoning, Acting Director, D.C. Office of Planning discuss the economic importance of small businesses.
Cities such as San Diego have departments with employees whose time is dedicated to helping small businesses get started and thrive.
Chula Vista unfortunately does not seem to understand. Large areas of western Chula Vista are in an enterprise zone, but the city doesn’t tell small businesses the advantages. (meeting in April on Enterprise Zone) Instead they hassle them with inspections, fees, and fines. This happens citywide. A local lawyer reports that many of his clients are small businesses in eastern Chula Vista and they also are constantly being annoyed by the city with inspections, permits, and fines.
Even well connected people have difficulties in wading through the cities cumbersome permitting process. Richard J. D’Ascoli, Director of Government Affairs for the Pacific Southwest Association of Realtors complained at the May 1 RAC meeting about how he was trying to help several businesses get started in Chula Vista and how hard it was.
Scott Vinson who is on the Planning Commission complained to a local businessman about how it took him a year to get the permits he needed to move his real estate business to the Eastlake condo he bought. He felt the only way he finally completed the process was to get the city planners who worked with the Planning Commission to help. He did not want to use his influence this way, but was so frustrated with the process that he did.
Sometimes it seems like the city actually is trying to discourage people from locating in Chula Vista. To start a business most people know they need a business license. Well one can apply on line for a business license or go to a counter at city hall, but as the Assistant Director of Planning & Building said in an e-mail on May 16, 2008: “Let me also take this opportunity to help correct a fairly common misconception about the function of a Business License. It is a tax, not a regulatory tool, and is administered by the Finance Department. Having a Business License in no way authorizes business owners to operate their facilities in violation of other sections of local, state or federal law.” Brad Remp, Building Official
The problem here is that the city routinely issues people business licenses without bothering to check if the business they are planning to start will be permitted in the place they plan to locate. Some how people are supposed to figure this all out for themselves. As a result Used Car Dealers on Main St. in Chula Vista not only have a business license, but also a letter signed by a city official telling the Department of Motor Vehicles that they are located in a place appropriate for auto sales (so that the DMV will issue them a license to sell cars), BUT Code Enforcement is trying to shut many of them down because they are a “non-conforming use”. One of these people has been in business for only three months, another for one year. Others have been in business for 17 years or more. The city does not feel they have an obligation at the time someone applies for a business license to investigate whether there is a problem with the location. After people have spent considerable time and money starting up their businesses, Code Enforcement comes by and informs them they can’t operate this business in this spot, but need to change to a conforming use or apply for expensive permits, which some officers have told people they will not get. This is the city’s policy on non-conforming uses: 19.64.010 Declaration of policy.
Many nonconforming uses within the city are detrimental to the orderly development of the city and adverse to the general welfare of persons and property, in that said nonconforming uses constitute a special benefit or monopoly. In conformance with good zoning practices, it is the policy of the city that nonconforming uses shall be eliminated as soon as it is economically feasible and equitable to do so. (Ord. 1212 § 1, 1969; prior code § 33.1101 (A)). 19-181 Chula Vista Municipal Code 19.64.080
This is NOT being business friendly. If people are allowed to open businesses in these areas of the city or have been here since before annexation to the city, the city should be working with these businesses to allow them to continue and thrive. The more money the business makes the more money the city potentially makes. Ordinances that do not allow non-conforming uses to fix up their businesses and make them more attractive and more productive make no sense. See 19.64.050 Enlargement, extension or reconstruction prohibited-Exceptions at link non-conforming use for more details.
Some examples of things local businesses have reported to me.
1. An auto repair shop owner was trying to get his building into compliance with codes. The planner assigned to his case approved the plans with certain setbacks and heights. He invested $16,000 in fees to the city plus money for an architect. When his contractor was about to build another city employee came around and said the plans were all wrong that the previous planner did not understand the codes and all the set backs had to be changed. A new planner was assigned to the case, who supposedly knows the correct setbacks. The shop owner now has to invest in more architectural plans and totally change his design. Instead of giving him credit for the fees previously paid, the city wants to charge him all the fees again!! They won’t take responsibility for the mistake made by the previous employee. He had hired a lawyer to help get him an extension from Code Enforcement, but the lawyer would not sue the city to get him credit for what he has already paid.
The profit margin for small businesses, especially in the current economy, is not large. This is totally unreasonable on the part of the city. It was their employee’s mistake they should bear the cost.
2. A Demolition business does all their work on the site of the property being demolished. They just park their equipment and truck behind their office at night. Every now and then they work late on the job and the dump is closed when they return to the office, so they have left concrete or full bins on site (in back out of view from the street). Code Enforcement told their landlord they could not do that anymore, when they tried to argue it was just over-night until the dump opened, they were told ‘you need a transfer permit to store materials over-night.’ This is ridiculous and another example of being unfriendly to business. This businessman owns a house in Chula Vista and wants to stay in Chula Vista, but he also wants to stay in business and is looking for a place to buy for his office and trucks. Will Chula Vista allow him to stay?
3. The city’s sign ordinances are extremely restrictive. In a poor economy people put up banners, flags etc. to try to attract business. The new Auto dealers have all kinds of flags and banners. Many businesses along Third, Broadway and even a condo conversion have banners up, but the used car lots on Main were told they could not have banners, and a dealer on Broadway was actually given six separate tickets-one for each banner so that his fine was $600 ($100 per banner).
4. A used car dealer fixed up his trailer and made it look like the other buildings on the block with new paint, decorative artificial brick, and parapets. He was given a notice with 2 weeks to convert to a conforming use. He was told he had violated his conditional use permit. When he said he would make everything the way it was, he was told it was too late. He had spent $35,000 to make his office look nice. Code Enforcement did not care. He had 14 million in sales last year and paid sales tax. He has six employees for whom he pays Workman’s Comp. He owns a home in Chula Vista. He is a college graduate and is opening another store in El Cajon soon. He owns the lot he is on. This is the kind of businessman the city should want to stay in Chula Vista, not drive out of business. He has hired another architect to try to work the problems out with the city. He may need to hire a structural engineer as well to prove that what he did was cosmetic, not structural.
5. The people across the street have been in business for 17 years. They moved to where they are now from across the street in 1997. Apparently before annexation in Nov. of 1985 Main St. was zoned Heavy Commercial by the County. In 1990 the city rezoned it to limited Industrial and informed all the commercial businesses that they would have to get conditional use permits because they were now non-conforming uses. The previous owner did not do this. When the current owners (relatives) moved across the street to this business after their relative died they were not told by the city about the code problems. In 2004 Code Enforcement gave them a letter saying they had two weeks to close down their non-conforming business because they did not have a conditional use permit. They were upset and appealed to the mayor and city manager. There was a meeting. The City Manager (Mr. Rowlins) read the letter and laughed. The mayor said no one is going to close your business, don’t worry. They left and forgot about the matter, but in 2008 they got another visit and another identical letter. This time they went to council with a group of businessmen who have had enough of the city’s harassment. Mr. Remp said “No one has to close their business, just come down and talk to us.”
This family has hired a Structural Engineer who used to work for the city and knows people in the planning department. They are going to try to get rid of the trailer office and rent the house next door as an office and if necessary start selling trucks which is a conforming use, if the city lets them.
6. There appears to be a hidden agenda in the Main Street area. Several years ago when these code enforcement problems started Voit produced a redevelopment plan for 35 acres in the Main Street area. All of the businesses in this area were sent letters by the city suggesting they sell to the developer or face eminent domain action by the Redevelopment Agency. This was around the time when a ballot Initiative-Proposition C-was being circulated. Proposition C makes eminent domain for private benefit or the use of any city funds for eminent domain against the charter in the city of Chula Vista. It passed with more than 70% of the vote. It unfortunately appears that the city is using Code Enforcement to try to get around Proposition C by forcing people out. It is way passed time for the businesses to unite and defend each other.
7. Another example of having to know someone to be able to get permits in Chula Vista is a business that was trying to expand. This is a long time business in Chula Vista producing revenue for the city as well as the owners. They wanted to make more money by expanding. They were hassling with the city for over a year and at great expense in fees, engineering and architectural drawing time. Finally one of them noticed they were dealing with a Lebanese man. He was Lebanese as well so he called his relatives in Lebanon. They contacted relatives of the city employee and low and behold they finally got their permits.