Many are the tales locals tell of dodge-and-deny tactics the City of San Diego uses to avoid enforcing its own laws. The most common excuses, especially in this time of budgetary woes, are that it costs too much. But listen to Robert Vacchi, today’s deputy director of the City’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Department. In 1997, when Vacchi was an associate planner for the department, he copyrighted a document entitled “New Options for Code Enforcement: San Diego’s Use of Administrative Remedies.”
Recently, two of the options Vacchi discussed, civil penalties and administrative citations, caught my attention. Both involve fines, civil penalties being the more expensive. They often start at $2500. For less serious matters, administrative citations start at $100, followed by $250 and $500 fines for noncompliance. “The advantages of administrative citations are…[that] most people comply after receiving the first citation,” wrote Vacchi. “In addition, citations bring in revenue.”
That was 12 years ago. On January 22, 2009, Vacchi wrote to the office of Mayor Sanders, explaining why Neighborhood Code Compliance had refused to act on certain noise complaints in Golden Hill. Vacchi explained that his department “could no longer expend resources in continuing an investigation of noise level limits.” Considering what happened, however, one has to wonder whether city government spent more on evasion tactics than it saved by refusing to act.
“Complaining about church services didn’t seem right,” says Golden Hill’s Ruchell Alvarez. “So I waited quite a while from the time I moved in next door.” The church is Chapel of Happiness on Broadway, a half block east of 30th Street. It has long been renowned in San Diego as a site for weddings. But in recent times, different pastors also bring their congregations there almost daily for Pentecostal services that often last three hours. The music, preaching, and speaking in tongues are not the problem. The amplifiers and speakers that broadcast them all over the neighborhood are what drive local residents to complain.
Late in 2006, Alvarez’s father Richard bought a unit in the La Collinda Condominiums immediately to the east. The living room, two of the condo’s bedrooms, and an outdoor patio are approximately 100 feet from the chapel and look down on its parking lot. During negotiations for the unit, real estate agents disclosed no noise problems. It was the first time Richard Alvarez, who is 63, had ever purchased residential property. He intends to live in it the rest of his life, to allow his daughter to live there as well, and to bequeath it to her after his death.
Ruchell Alvarez moved into the condo first, early in 2007, while her father remained in his apartment until August. “I started telling him about how loud it was next door and how disturbing the sounds were,” she says, “but he thought I was exaggerating. He told me, ‘I’ll take care of it when I get there.’ ” But she could not wait. By July, Ruchell Alvarez was calling the chapel’s leaders and asking them to turn down the noise and close their windows and doors during services. “Sometimes they turned it down,” she tells me, “but only for a short time. Eventually, they ignored me and a few times even hung up on me.”
Within a month of his arrival, Richard Alvarez was calling the church too. But to no avail. In February 2008, the Alvarezes reached Mary Burriel, whose husband, Reverend Jesse Burriel, now deceased, founded the Chapel of Happiness in 1964. (At least one letter from the 1960s has surfaced, already complaining to the City of San Diego about noise and building code violations at the church.)
Mary Burriel still lives in apartments attached to the back of the chapel. According to the Alvarezes, Burriel conveys by phone an immense weariness over the noise issue. “She told us to either move out of our condo or call the police,” says Ruchell Alvarez.
Within several days, the Alvarezes began a long and insistent history of calling the police. It took the police only a few visits, however, for them to announce that they would do nothing. The Alvarez family, they said, should take its complaints instead to the San Diego Neighborhood Code Compliance Department. On its website, the department states the following: “Because excessive noise can be harmful to the health and welfare of citizens, the City of San Diego prohibits excessive and annoying noise within City limits.”
The first question Richard Alvarez had for Mike Wisnieski of Neighborhood Code Compliance was, “How many complaints about the Chapel of Happiness have there been already?” None, he said Wisnieski told him. However, Alvarez soon discovered that a neighbor in his building had complained as early as 1996. After he called the complaint to Wisnieski’s attention, the official sent him two other complaints. Not satisfied, Alvarez filed a public records request asking for complaint letters. Six more were provided. “I’m sure there are more,” Alvarez tells me.
The complaint letters cite amplified drum playing, singing, wailing, children screaming, car alarms going off in the parking lot, and stones being thrown at the complainers’ condos, among other things. One writer says that, at her church, she is taught to “love thy neighbor.” “But that’s a two-way street,” she writes. Another complainer submitted a calendar showing that the days that were loud approached five per week over long periods of time.
Nevertheless, Code Compliance told Alvarez that his complaint would need the support of other complainers. So in April, he and his daughter obtained 17 contemporary supporting letters from his building. Meanwhile, Code Compliance’s Oscar Prado went to a Sunday-morning worship service at the Chapel of Happiness and announced that he saw no problem. It would be one of four visits made by Code Compliance officials. A salient characteristic of the visits, however, was they went into the church or onto its property during services, tipping off the alleged offenders.
Several weeks later, Prado visited the La Collinda Condominiums to get firsthand accounts from the residents who sent in complaints. He left “door hangers” at the residences, saying later that he found nobody home. Although the door hangers had on them Prado’s name, office, and a phone number, they did not indicate why he had come. A woman later told Ruchell Alvarez that she called the number and couldn’t get through. “No wonder,” says Alvarez, who instructs me to dial the number on my cell phone to listen. “It’s a fax number. Then Prado proudly told us later that our complaint had no supporters in the building.”
I located one of the people (he wishes to remain anonymous) who complained to Code Compliance in 2004. He told me he lived for six “miserable years” on the other side of Broadway from the Chapel of Happiness. He complained numerous times and, on one occasion, went onto the chapel’s parking lot. There, he says, a group of church members surrounded him, demanding he give them a satisfactory reason for his presence before letting him go. People in the neighborhood were always calling the police and Code Compliance, he told me, but the chapel had a system of sentries who stood out on Broadway looking for trouble. If City officials came into the neighborhood, the noise turned low.
By now, the Alvarezes were soliciting the help of Ben Hueso, their District Eight city councilman and council president. Hueso expressed his sympathy, saying that he had endured a loud Pentecostal church in his neighborhood and that its noise was awful. He said he knew the leaders at the Chapel of Happiness and would ask them to reduce the noise. Whatever he told them, say the Alvarezes, noise levels remained the same.
Eventually, the issue ended up in arbitration. Mike Littlefield, a dispute resolution officer in the city attorney’s office, held three meetings between the parties. The Alvarezes and another resident of their building met with three Spanish-speaking pastors and Abram Rodriguez, who lives on the Chapel of Happiness property.
During one meeting held in the chapel, according to Ruchell Alvarez, Rodriguez “jumped up at the sound of a jetliner passing over nearby and asked, ‘Do you call the police on that?’ ” (Rodriguez has not returned my calls seeking his version of events.) In the end, the meetings proved useless, as the City’s Mike Littlefield did not even recommend a solution.
On September 10, Robert Vacchi of Code Compliance wrote to Richard and Ruchell Alvarez that “we will no longer investigate noise issues for [the Chapel of Happiness] site.” “The decision has a ring of finality about it,” says Ruchell Alvarez, who wonders whether the City is intimidated by potential freedom of religious expression lawsuits. “What about the rights of local residents?” she asks.
The nuisance at the Chapel of Happiness does seem to violate standards of all nine criteria for deciding noise regulation issues. These include duration of the noise, proximity of the noise to sleeping facilities, whether the nature of the noise is usual or unusual, and the level of the noise. Regarding the last criterion, Alvarez is especially frustrated. She says Neighborhood Code Compliance has refused to bring a decibel meter into her building to measure noise levels during the Chapel of Happiness services. “We have given a standing invitation to any City employees to come to our home and listen for themselves,” she says.
Richard Alvarez offered to purchase his own decibel meter and show its readings to the appropriate officials. But Neighborhood Code Compliance says only its official decibel meter can be used. Yet the office will not use it in the La Collinda Condominiums.
Six weeks ago, I walked the alley behind the Chapel of Happiness during one of its evening services. I had no decibel reader but became convinced immediately that the noise I heard coming from the chapel would violate laws anywhere. Later, Richard Alvarez played for me a number of tape recordings he had taken of other such services throughout his residence at the La Collinda Condominiums. The recordings sounded much like what I had heard in the alley.
“In the arbitration hearing,” Alvarez tells me, “Abram Rodriguez refused to listen to tapes of the noise his organization is responsible for. He argued that I have doctored the tapes to make them louder, that I turned up the volume while taping. Well, tape recorders do not record louder or softer. You can turn the volume up, yes, but only during the playback. And you can see here,” he says, holding the recorder close to me as he raises and lowers the volume, “that I’m playing this at a normal level.”
To further his case, Alvarez fast-forwards the tape to several intervals in which he is heard making remarks about a Padres game and speaking to his daughter. His voice is not loud. But as soon as the church music on the tape starts, we can barely hear each other talk.
Last spring and throughout the summer, the Alvarezes did not realize — nor did any City official inform them — that they may have had another recourse to getting City help. The city attorney’s office offers both a Code Enforcement Unit and a Neighborhood Prosecution Unit (there is a prosecutor who works with the police department in each of the four major divisions of the city: northern, western, central, and mid-city).
On January 27, in connection with an old Linda Vista loading site filled with festering water, newly elected City Attorney Jan Goldsmith had this to say: “We’ve raised code enforcement to a top priority.… We have a problem with Code Compliance generally. We need more officers and more training for them.… We will make sure we have prosecutors who know what they’re doing and they’re adequately funded.”
Goldsmith’s statement may have something to do with the phone call a police officer made to Richard Alvarez three weeks ago. The officer wanted Alvarez to know that he had just issued a noise citation to the leader of a choir and band practicing at the Chapel of Happiness. Alvarez had not even called the police.
The citation, which Alvarez learned carried the threat of a fine up to $500 for repeat violations, gave him hope. His optimism was shattered last week, however, when graffiti turned up in his condo complex. It started in the stairwell on the third floor, led along an inside wall, and finished ten feet from his door. The message inside the stairwell? “Help me please. I don’t want to die in here.”
Nevertheless, reports Alvarez, noise at the Chapel of Happiness has decreased markedly in the past two weeks. “It’s been quiet as a mouse,” he says.