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Deed restrictions imposed for city code violations

by DJ Hobson
(Tustin Ca)

Visitor Question: What authority does a city have to require a code offender to agree to a new deed with onerous restrictions and for how long?

Editors Reply: As far as we are aware, the answer is none. If you know of a city where this is taking place, please let us know so we can investigate the legal authority to do so.

It's true that a city has a fairly broad range of remedies at the disposal of the municipal judge o administrative court that follows up on unresolved code violation notices. Commonly the remedies for code violation include orders to complete necessary repairs or clean up a nuisance. Usually judges or administrative hearing officers have the right to impose fines, and often the fine is per day that the violation continues. These are thought to be effective means of assuring that eventually a property owner complies with the law.

If fines are not paid, many cities file a lien against the property. To simplify this, a lien means that a bill must be paid at the time that the property is sold or transferred upon death.

Cities often claim the right to add penalties to unpaid fines, just as taxing authorities do. Or a judge or hearing officer might impose a system of escalating fines, such as $20 per day per violation for the first month, rising to $50 per day per violation thereafter.

But it doesn't make sense to us that a city could order a property owner to accept a new deed, unless something very unusual happened. The one example we can think of would be an instance in which the city itself previously owned the land and established a deed restriction prohibiting certain activities and providing that if those activities were discovered, the new owner would forfeit the land. But that's a pretty wild and crazy example not likely to occur in real life.

A deed restriction can only be imposed by a current property owner, although in many states a deed restriction runs with the land in perpetuity after it is established. So conceivably you also could have a situation in which a previous owner imposed a restriction saying that if a subsequent owner does X, Y, or Z, the land must revert to the city. Again, that is a really far-fetched example.

We suppose another example would be the city condemning a property due to code violations and then taking it through eminent domain. If the city then wanted to resell the land and improvements to the former property owner, the city might impose some deed restrictions. This is unlikely, but maybe slightly more likely than our other two scenarios.

We are thinking that there is a misunderstanding about terminology here, since we can't get past the idea that only a property owner can impose a deed restriction. If you know differently, please describe the situation more fully in a comment.

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