continued Believing Garcias had illegally altered the municipal code to fit the situation, Winkelman refused to comply and continued parking on the grass next to the Plank. Garcias, he says, "continued pounding me on it. And he even came out here and posted a notice right there on the corner of my building condemning my property, for being a public nuisance, unsafe, and unfit for human habitation."
Winkelman adds, "It's harassment. And it's selective. I can drive you up and down this street," he points south down Seacoast, "and show you cars parked on gravel, on grass, on all kinds of things, but they are all perfectly all right. And I can show you pictures that I took nearly two years ago that I showed to the city council when they had me up there for this big fine that they were charging me -- $100 or $200 a day -- for parking on my lawn. The same cars are still on the same spots two years later."
Garcias doesn't deny condemning the Plank due to Winkelman's noncompliance on the parking issue, though he vehemently denies the accusation that he personally altered an ordinance to make it illegal for Winkelman to park his Corvettes next to the Plank. With an audible laugh, he says, "We would never do that. He has gone in front of judges and the city council, and in each case, they said, 'The law was correct.' I can't change the law. I am only an enforcement person. I go off of what the city code says, and the city code is enacted by the city council after public hearings and all that stuff."
Winkelman believes the fire inspector and code enforcement department were sicced on him by a gentrification-minded city council that "doesn't want any alcohol near the beach." Ed Kravitz, the publisher of a news and opinion website called saveIB.com, which is critical of the city government, agrees with Winkelman's assessment. "They want to make bars an endangered species," Kravitz says. "And they know if Al is closed for more than 90 days, the zoning goes back to residential. So they'd like to hang him up for any reason to close him. And the city council is known to use the code enforcement department to punish people and businesses they don't like."
Ted Powers, former commissioner of the now-defunct Imperial Beach planning commission, shares Kravitz's view. "The council," he says, "uses the code enforcement department as a revenue generator, and they use it as a political battle axe to punish people."
Kravitz adds, "The code enforcement department should be complaint driven. But in IB, it hasn't been for the last decade. It's proactively driven, meaning that they are out looking for violations. The intent was -- and I believe this was said publicly at a council meeting in 1995 or '96 -- that they were going to use code enforcement to revitalize Imperial Beach."
Garcias denies that he's being prompted by the city council to enforce codes at the Plank. Rather, he says he's responding to "a rising number of citizen complaints. In Mr. Winkelman's case, I can't be too specific because there is litigation involved, but I can generally say, all of them were citizen complaints. We always let the owner know they're in violation. And I have to admit, there have been people who are very resistant to cleaning up. Sometimes they say, 'I have been doing this for 50 years, why are you taking this to me now?' And a lot of times it is because I got a citizen complaint and I have to."
Asked why after 30-plus years of peaceful existence, the Plank has become the subject of citizen complaints, Garcias points to the recent rise in property values in Imperial Beach. "This city is in clean-up mode. We've got a lot of new owners who paid, let's say, $600,000 or $700,000 for their new home. And they get in the house and they look at their back-yard neighbor who has seven or eight junk cars in the back yard. So they call me to complain. My job is to respond to those complaints."
Faced with a condemnation of his property, Winkelman stopped parking his cars on the lawn. But he's sued the City over the issue. "I don't like the idea of going to court," he says. "It is costing me money, and in a way it is foolish and stupid. But I am not going to lie down and roll over and play dead for them. That is what most people would do, but I am not going to do it. So if it costs me $5000, $10,000, $20,000, $50,000 to fight them, I am doing it."