by Rebecca Fairley Raney
Nailing down the building boom
What it won: First place, Best In-Depth Coverage, Twin Counties Press Club/Society of Professional Journalists, 1988.
Honorable mention for a series, Press Club of Southern California.
This was one of those fabulous experiences in which you learn that with just a little effort, a few stories can have a great effect. During the building boom of the late 1980s, Rancho Cucamonga, a newly incorporated city in our circulation area, was promoting itself as the new Orange County. They were harvesting houses in those old vineyards at an extraordinary rate.
You would drive past an empty vineyard one week, and the next week you would see it covered with hundreds of framed houses. The city's building codes were legendary; the city required builders to meet extraordinary standards in landscaping and design.
But things were moving just a little too fast, and a former building inspector was itching to talk about it. I worked with Lee Peterson, who covered the city, and we found that inspections were falling by the wayside.
Throughout the reporting, city officials insisted that buildings were being constructed to the letter. But on the Friday night before the series was set to run, a nasty Santa Ana wind roared through the pass at 70 mph, and it blew the roofs off an entire tract of newly framed houses.
Funny how those things happen.
The city's top building official met us at the collapsed housing tract and conceded that the city may have a few problems. At the next City Council meeting, he submitted a memo that essentially followed the outline of our stories and said that everything we had reported in the three-day series was correct.
R.C. inspectors can't do inspections fast enough, say officials
The Daily Report
Oct. 31, 1988
When Monica Christensen boarded an elevator last year, the surprises didn't stop with getting stuck.
She and her husband had moved into the Rudolph Hendrickson Seniors Apartments in Rancho Cucamonga the day before. Their son, Terry, ran the development company that built the apartments.
Christensen was taking her Chihuahua for a walk. She and the dog got into the elevator. She pushed the button for the first floor. The doors closed.
But the elevator didn't move, and the doors wouldn't open.
Christensen opened the emergency telephone box, but there was no phone. It hadn't been installed yet.
Christensen's rescuers from the Foothill Fire Protection District were not surprised by her predicament. The building had not passed final inspection.
The problems in that apartment building have been corrected, but fire officials say they wouldn't be surprised to find similar problems elsewhere.
Buildings are going up so fast in Rancho Cucamonga that the city's watchdogs can't check every nut and bolt.
Ralph Crane, the fire district's superintendent of code enforcement, compares the situation to driving a car at 100 mph while the mechanics are trying to build it.
The consequences, he said, may be extreme.
"Some people are going to be hurt," Crane said. "There's going to be some property loss. I don't know if we're going to have a [Los Angeles] First Interstate [caliber] fire where the sprinklers have been turned off. Who's to say?"
Crane's counterparts in the city's Building and Safety Department agree.
One member of the department, who asked not to be identified, said he wished the building could be stopped for two months to give the inspectors and plan checkers an opportunity to catch up.
The building rate has put them behind. In 1982, the value of all the building permits issued in Rancho Cucamonga was $27 million. In 1987 the total valuation was $310 million. Construction in 1988 has kept pace with that.
Crane said that once every two weeks, fire inspectors report that they see people building without permits or occupying buildings that haven't passed final inspections. A year ago, inspectors reported these problems as often as three or four times a week.
Yet no records exist in the city archives to trace these violations. In some cases, permits are issued after the building begins. There's no paper trail to indicate that ranking city officials know about the problem.
Even when builders do get building permits, not all of them wait for final inspections before they allow people to use the building.
"Typically, we'll go out to do a final inspection on request and we'll find people in the building," Crane said. "My inspectors run into proof of that statement all on a daily basis."
There are no records of those situations either.
Fire officials are not alone in decrying the system.
Don Plagge, a former building inspector, left the department on bad terms, quitting after serving a two-week suspension without pay for insubordination.
His view of the city inspection process is not settling. Plagge said he became disenchanted with a department he felt was not backing him in his efforts to get builders to live up to codes.
However, city building official Jerry Grant said supervisors do support their inspectors.
Grant said the department is busy, with a 500 percent increase in the number of permits pulled since 1983, but that it is not overwhelmed.
Though developers criticize the fire district's inspections of office buildings and apartments as slow, Crane said the district does not intend to hold up development.
"We don't want to be a rock in the stream," he said. "We want to support any direction the city of Rancho Cucamonga wants to take in development. . . . I'd love to shut this thing down for a month so we could build it and drive it at 100 mph."
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