Tow-away zones that lie

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Parking a car is notoriously difficult in San Francisco, where you can be towed for blocking a driveway, occupying a bus zone, failing to move your vehicle at certain times of the day, or being in a posted construction zone.

But many of those construction zone tow-away signs may be fake, a problem that the city does little to enforce and the public has a hard time discerning.

Contractors sometimes simply purchase a sign for $2 and post it without the legal right to do so. Often it’s an innocent error by out-of-town contractors who don’t know to apply for a street space parking permit. Other times it can be an interim step by contractors waiting for the right to reserve a spot outside their job site or by contractors who never met with a Department of Public Works inspector to determine the hours and scope of their parking needs.

Theoretically, parkers are free to ignore these fake signs. But it’s hard for the public to tell a fake sign from a real one unless they contact the city. And who does that while hunting for a parking space?

The streets are considered part of the public’s right-of-way. In addition to a construction permit, a street space permit is necessary if contractors will block the right-of-way, although underground services such as utility companies remain exempt.

The DPW issued 9,020 street space permits in 2006, according to spokesperson Christine Falvey. That year 93 citations were issued to property owners whose contractors did not have valid street space permits; all of those citations were prompted by citizen complaints.

"Street space violations are not proactive, they are reactive," said Dan McKenna, deputy manager of the DPW’s Bureau of Street Use and Mapping, which handles these permits and violations.

In other words, a construction zone tow-away sign will never be challenged if the public does not ask the DPW or the Department of Building Inspection, which has its own street space permit desk, to go out and validate it.

That’s what happened at the corner of Haight and Shrader streets last October when Service Concrete of Daly City got a valid permit for street space and sidewalk repair but failed to meet with a DPW inspector. Contractors often want to claim more spaces, for more hours, than what the inspectors may ultimately be willing to approve.

Service Concrete never scheduled a meeting with the department, nor did it register the times of enforcement. Therefore, it never had a legal right to tow anyone or reserve those parking spots, according to DPW deputy manager John Kwong.

"They never contacted the department to schedule a meeting for the street space occupancy," Kwong said. "Therefore, the street space permit is not considered valid. They’re not supposed to occupy." But they did, and the job was completed with at least four parking meters marked for tow-away.

A call to the phone number on the permit resulted in the contractor telling the Guardian, "I don’t remember. Even if you tell me, I won’t remember. I can’t comment on anything on this."

In April, the NEQE construction company received a building permit for a seismic retrofit at 240 Golden Gate Ave. It requested a street space permit May 11 and immediately posted no-parking signs. However, it did not have a site inspection, and the actual street space permit wasn’t issued until May 26, according to Nick Elsner, senior plan checker with the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping.

The initial tow-away signs were for seven days a week, 24 hours a day until November, although the permit on file said the contractor needed the space from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. The contractor eventually received 60 linear feet for three parking spaces for the limited time frame.

"They didn’t put it in the computer," a representative of NEQE told us. "What happened on the job site, we put up the sign for the parking permit. And then they give us notice. And I had to go back to the city because the parking department is different from the city. We showed all the documents, and it was fine."

Neither Service Concrete nor NEQE were cited for improper postings of their tow-away signs. Most violators are never cited. Elsner told us it is obvious that contractors often ignore the law, which, if violated, carries a penalty of up to $1,000 per day.

"When we learn about a tow zone without a permit, we go out and enforce the law," he said. "But we only have four inspectors."

At the height of summer last year, when construction was in full swing, there was a three-week backlog for the verification process, according to Elsner.

Getting street space used to be automatic, until the Board of Supervisors amended Section 724 of the Public Works Code in 2002. Before, the price of a building permit determined the length of time contractors could usurp parking spaces.

"In the past the street space durations, the amount of time you were given for a building space, was directly related to the cost of your project," Elsner said. "If you had a $40 million project, you got four years’ parking. So if you finished in three years, you had a year of free parking. The Board of Supervisors looked at this and decided there was something wrong. Now permits are issued on a monthly basis, six-month maximum. You pay per 20 linear feet, basically one parking space, $82.08."

Elsner said the public cannot tell simply by reading a sign whether it has been legally posted. "They may have filled the sign out correctly, but that doesn’t mean they have a permit," he said. The revised ordinance requires temporary tow-away signs to have the permit number on them in addition to the contractor’s name and phone number. But some contractors don’t bother to apply.

"Our biggest problem we have is with roofers," Elsner observed. "They get a permit to do a roof and say they don’t need a street space. What do you mean you don’t need a street space permit? Either the building has a huge setback or they intend to fly in by helicopter."

Elsner said the street space ordinance has no set hours or days a contractor may use a street space. "That is worked out with the inspector," he said. "If they are not working, their parking should be for public use."

He said he warns contractors that they are responsible for affixing the signs so they aren’t torn down. If there is no sign, the Department of Parking and Traffic is not obliged to tow.

Every day a new list of valid permits is sent to the DPT tow desk. However, some contractors have learned it is cheaper and easier to buy a few paper signs, fill them out, and tape them up rather than get a valid street permit. A sign costs $1.99 at White Cap Industries, a construction supply company.

Cheryl Duperrault is one of the street improvement inspectors at the Bureau of Street Use and Mapping who respond to public complaints. Of the 93 citations issued in 2006, she wrote 32, nearly a third. Duperrault said she cited contractors who simply posted a fake tow-away sign and never sought a permit.

"That has happened," she said. "I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more than it does. It’s easy to tell whether or not the street space permit is valid because they should have a big white placard visible from the street. It gives the information of the permit." *

The DPW offers a free brochure that describes the process of applying for street and sidewalk permits. The brochure is available at its offices on Stevenson Street or by fax or mail. A permit is required when anyone intends to block the public right-of-way "to construct, improve, excavate, occupy, and/or perform work." There is a hotline (415-554-5810) to see if there is a permit on file. The Bureau of Street Use and Mapping will respond if the public questions a temporary tow-away sign.