An article in last Saturday's Maryland and D.C. Real Estate section stated incorrectly that proposed legislation to regulate homeowners associations included a requirement that associations in Maryland insure commonly held property. The provision was deleted from the proposed bill.
The Barry administration is pushing legislation to decriminalize housing and zoning code violations, saying the change would greatly improve the District's dismal record of enforcing the regulations.
But critics say the measure would add another layer of bureaucracy to the city government without any real indication that enforcement would get better.
The bill would establish civil penalties for building and zoning violations, empower inspectors to write citations and assess fines, and provide for administrative law judges to rule on contested citations and penalties.
Under present law, most infractions are criminal violations, a status that hampers enforcement because the corporation counsel's staff is overworked and judges are reluctant to hand out criminal convictions to builders and homeowners, said city officials.
The city would retain the authority for criminal prosecution of code violations, but in practice would use the civil enforcement in most cases, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
The proposed legislation establishes a system of civil enforcement and fines, and does not change existing zoning and building codes, she said.
Sloppy enforcement "has been a sore point for years" with residents of city neighborhoods from Anacostia to Capitol Hill to Cleveland Park, said Richard N. Wolf, an officer of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society Inc.
A shortage of inspectors, poor follow up on stop-work orders issued to halt construction that violates codes, and reluctance to prosecute often combine to make a joke of enforcement, say critics.
Four inspectors and a supervisor who also makes inspections are responsible for overseeing all zoning enforcement in the city, according to the consumer and regulatory affairs spokeswoman.
She said the city has 53 building inspectors.
Many of the infractions most disturbing to neighborhood residents are zoning violations.
An extreme example, said Lawrence A. Monaco Jr., president of the Capitol Hill organization, is a deck built on the back of a Capitol Hill house. When work began, neighbors called inspectors to complain that the structure, which would occupy all of the lot where it was being built, violated zoning and historic district regulations, and that it was being constructed without a building permit.
An inspector who went to look at the property said he could not see a deck because he was unable to see the rear of the house, Monaco said.
In fact, he later said in a letter to Carol Thompson, director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, there are two alley entrances leading to the rear of the house.
Work on the deck has been completed, although the owner has never submitted an application for a permit and has been notified that the deck violates city regulations, said City Administrator Thomas M. Downs in a reply to Monaco's letter of complaint about the deck and other code violations.
Downs said owners of two other properties have so far ignored a city order to stop illegal construction and "have not removed the structures," as required by law.
He said the owners could be taken to court but noted that "obtaining injunctive relief is a cumbersome and lengthy process."
In another area of the city, "there's a general concern" among the member organizations of the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Committee "about the lack of any real enforcement" of building and zoning codes, said the chairman, Robert McFadden.
The committee is an umbrella organization for community groups in neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park.
The proposed legislation, named the Civil Infractions Act, would cover a number of other city codes, including those governing alcoholic beverage control, banks and other financial institutions, corporations, motor vehicles and the food and drug and insurance industries.
But, in a letter to City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, Mayor Marion Barry Jr. said its passage would "result in implementation" of one of his administation's major goals -- to "strengthen enforcement of the housing code."
"We believe that sufficiently high monetary fines would serve as deterrents and provide impetus to comply" with code violations, said consumer and regulatory affairs director Thompson.
Testifying this week at a hearing on the bill, she said reliance on criminal prosecution has been unsatisfactory. "Unfortunately, in the legal system, regulatory violations are considered a minor irritant of low priority in comparison to the more serious . . . matters such as felonies . . . . Thus violators continue to operate with impunity."
In addition, most code violations do not "merit harsh penalties," Thompson said. "Civil fine authority would allow us to impose a sanction for wrongdoing which would not terminate the business or leave the owner with a criminal record."
The failure to prosecute is a major flaw in the enforcement efforts, community groups say.
"You can count on your fingers the number of times the District of Columbia has gone into court" to enforce bulding and zoning codes, or prosecute violators, said Wolf, of the Capitol Hill group.
When reports of violations are sent to the corporation counsel's office "they just get lost," he said.
Thompson was among several witnesses appearing this week before the City Council's committee on consumer and regulatory affairs. Questions raised at the hearing will be reviewed, and some amendments may be proposed, said Anne Luzzatto, the committee counsel.
Monaco said he will submit written testimony to the committee.
He said the proposed legislation "in itself is not enough. If the city provides enough inspectors and follow up, and the hearings are prompt enough, then there would be some benefit. Otherwise, it is just adding something to the law and won't help."
The Civil Infractions Act would authorize the appointment of attorneys to serve as administrative law judges with subpoena power to call witnesses and to preside over hearings in contested cases, impose fines and other penalties, and suspend penalties.
Other employes would be hired to work as hearing examiners.
A total of 53 persons would be hired to staff the adjudication office, a city spokeswoman said.
Fines collected will support the new office, Thompson said during this week's hearing. New York City took in about $10 million in the first year after it instituted the civil penalties, she said.
This aspect of the plan drew fire from Donald R. Slatton, executive vice president of the Washington area Apartment and Office Building Association.
If fines collected are expected to support the adjudication office, "there will be pressure on inspectors to write up enough tickets to pay for it."
"We think the code ought to be enforced" but fear the proposed legislation will make building inspectors "judge and jury" with authority to assess the fine at the time the citation is written, Slatton said.
The proposed legislation would give the mayor authority to "prepare a schedule of fines" which would have to be approved or modified by the superior court board of judges.
Instead of "adding another layer of bureaucracy," the city should "hire 53 more people for the corporation counsel's office" to prosecute violations under the present criminal sanctions.
Before drawing up its bill, the consumer and regulatory affairs staff surveyed 11 other cities, including Baltimore, which use civil penalties to punish regulatory violations. Their officials "are consistently enthusiastic about the benefits of such authority," Thompson said this week. Montgomery County and the city of Rockville also punish many code violations with civil penalties and "report accelerated compliance . . . ," she said.