Draft Nuisance Code Becomes A Nuisance

Los Alamos

(This letter originally appeared in the Los Alamos Daily Post. The version below includes an emailed response from Jessica Lawlis, a county contractor responsible for soliciting feedback on the draft code. It concludes with a final commentary.)

On July 25, the final draft revision of the updated nuisance code was released for public comment. While there are certainly many questionable and concerning changes being proposed, I’d like to focus on Sec 18-38, particularly the “Alternative for Personal Auto and Hobby Repair,” quoted below:

Alternative for Personal Auto and Hobby Repair16: Repair, maintenance, or hobby activities performed on personal vehicles owned by the owner(s) or occupant of the property will be done in a manner which minimizes the impact to the neighborhood and, shall be performed within the garage or behind fenced areas which are not readily visible from public rights-of-way.

16: Alternative language that would be inserted to deal with Personal Auto and Hobby Repair if desired by the Community.

While this section may only apply to inoperable vehicles referenced just above this particular paragraph, my naive reading interprets this as a blanket statement intended for any vehicle repair. For either reading, however, a significant issue is that many houses in the county do not have garages or “not readily visible” areas with which to work on vehicles. (By the way, how many pre-1980s garages can even fit a modern vehicle?) To assess the percentage of houses without garages, I took a Google Streetview tour of several streets throughout the county – what I believe to be a representative sample from various neighborhoods. The results are:

AreaSampled Street# houses in sample% with garage
Barranca Mesa3197%
Totavi St.3197%
North Mesa5774%
Kristi Ln25100%
Seminole St3253%
North Community4652%
Woodland Rd4652%
Western Area3523%
41st St2715%
49th St850%
Quemazon Pl52100%
Eastern Area4547%
7th St1050%
Nambe Loop1937%
Quartz St1656%
Elk Ridge230%
Royal Crest Ln230%
Confianza St32100%
White Rock7077%
Azure Dr21100%
Hamlin Ct1573%
Isleta Dr1942%
Yosemite Dr1593%

What can we learn from this brief analysis? While some newer (more expensive) developments have garages as a standard feature, there are many communities where garages are not as plentiful. The Western Area, Eastern Area, and portions of White Rock have garages at less than 50% of the sampled houses. And while I oppose this code update, I tried not to let bias influence my sample methodology.

Are homeowners in these communities meant to just never work on their cars? As a relatively new homeowner without a garage, can I never change my own headlight or swap out brake pads on my driveway? It seems to me that, particularly with the makeup of houses in our community, this proposed rule overreaches and punishes those who weren’t able to afford (or just weren’t lucky enough to get) a house with a garage. Suddenly, home auto repair is reserved for the haves and taken away from the have-nots. As an old mentor once said, “Life is more expensive the less affluent you are. Frugality is often a luxury.” The spirit of repairing your own car lies in frugality – it is a way to save money and help make ends meet. Look again at the communities with low numbers of garages… Is this fair?

Of course, this proposed rule is slightly more insidious. How much will my home’s value drop because driveway auto repairs would be illegal? When my house received its assessor’s report last year, the value of a garage was listed at $10k. A workshop was $5k. I accepted and agreed with that difference. If this ruling takes effect, it will drop my property’s value even more. I would not have bought this house. The rule will reduce the supply of willing buyers for properties like mine – every potential gear head would see it as a red flag. (Conversely, newer houses with garages will see their values only increase.)

I certainly hope that footnote 16 is true, and that the community expresses a desire to enable those without garages to make repairs to their vehicles.

Emailed response from Jessica Lawlis, after emailing the letter to them:

We appreciate your review of the draft updates to the Chapter 18 Nuisance code.

I understand your concerns and appreciate your analysis. To clarify, the language under the heading Alternative for Personal Auto and Hobby Repair on page 5 of the draft, was intended to apply only to automotive repair of inoperable vehicles being stored in public view while being repaired or restored over extended periods of time. A series of comments sharing your concerns are bringing to light that this language was not clear. We will raise the concerns received about this particular section to CDAB at our upcoming presentations.

We appreciate your input. If you have any follow-up questions or concerns please send them our way.

Even with the county’s clarification on this section of the code, I believe the main point of my argument stands – Long-term repairs or project cars simply won’t be an option for a large portion of the community. And while there are other issues with this code section (e.g. applying only to vehicles owned by the property occupant), and with their definition of “inoperable vehicle,” my broader concern is how far-reaching this draft code seems to be. From my perspective, it reaches beyond health and safety concerns and beyond curbing interference with the Public’s exercise of public rights (the code’s stated purpose). Does a neat and orderly longer term repair-in-progress on my driveway substantially detract from a neighbor’s walk down the sidewalk, to the extent that repairs should be illegal? My fear is that regulative overreach will engender non-compliance, which saps respect for the broader county code.

According to the press release, “Members of the public may review and email additional comments by August 23 to Jessica Lawlis at JessicaL@dpsdesign.org or Sobia Sayeda at Sobia.Sayeda@lacnm.us. CDD staff will also present the final draft to the Los Alamos County Community Development Advisory Board (CDAB) on August 15.” I encourage all readers to submit their thoughts on this matter.

The press release may be found at: https://www.lacchp18update.org/post/draft-chapter-18-nuisance-code-update-available-for-review

Editor’s note: Jessica Lawlis works for Dekker/Perrich/ Sabatini, the County’s consultant for revision of the code.