Update: Is a Balcony Garden Against Building Code?

Posted on May 31 2011 - 2:47am by Mike Lieberman

So last week I mentioned that a building inspector from the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD) came to inspect our building and said that the balcony garden was against code.

He was vague and didn’t cite a code at the time, but said fire code. The local fire department didn’t seem to think so though.

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.31.36A week later, there was a memo from LAHD posted in a common area saying that all citations needed to be addressed by sometime the end of June. I followed up and called them to get the exact citation.

The inspector couldn’t provide one and just kept saying he was “doing his job.” I appreciate him doing his job. If he is going to do his job and cite me doing something wrong, I’d like to know what it is and was not provided with that.

He told me that if it wasn’t taken care of by that date that a higher authority (I forget the name) would come out to assess the situation.

Screenshot 2014-04-10 17.32.48The fire department were followed up with again and they didn’t see it as against fire code. They even called up the inspector and he gave them the same run around.

Heck if it’s against a code and they can cite me on it, I’ll gladly comply. I’m not going to comply with, “I’m just doing my job.” I knew the fire escape garden was against code, but was never cited on it.

I’ll keep you updated, but what’s your thoughts on this whole situation?

  • http://yourway.net Mandi @ Life…Your Way

    Wow, that’s pretty frustrating. And the not being able to cite a code just makes the guy sound like a loony! Glad you were willing to stand up and not just back down when he said it was against the code in his head. I’m curious to see how this all plays out!

  • charmcity balconygarden

    Is it possible that your neighbors are unhappy about it? Maybe they put in a complaint?

  • http://wannabelocavore.wordpress.com Jecka

    I would be very frustrated if I were you! How aggravating!

    It’s very curious that the fire department says it’s not a violation, but an inspector does. Who does the inspector work for if not the fire department?

    You really need to continue getting to the bottom of this. Speak to the inspector’s supervisor. Speak with your landlord or other residents who have things on their balconies to see what they’ve been told (if anything).

    However, in the end you may have to comply and figure out a loophole or way to get around whatever  ”code” this may violate.

  • Victoria

    Good luck.  What a bunch of nonsense.  If they force you maybe you could put up some planters that hang from the side of the balcony?  I would certainly continue to pursue this crazy “code” the guy is talking about.  Jecka is right, find out who the inspector’s supervisor is.

  • T R

    Mike, my fear for you is that this guy will take your actions as being some kind of obstinate jerk and try to make an example of you.  Now, we all know that is not what you are doing here but I fear  that they will take someone like you speaking up as a threat.  That being said, all I can see is that they might say something about the pots under the windows hindering an exit if you had to climb out of the window during a fire.  Let me state for the record and all of your readers that I do support what you are doing with your inquiries as well as your wonderful garden!  Please don’t give in unless the authorities can give you a specific code violation.  Good luck, Mike, and we are rooting for you.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Will be interesting. 

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    They all have to remove their things too. It’s not just me. So I doubt that a complaint caused it.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    He works for the Los Angeles Housing Department, not the Fire Department, but he insisted it was a fire code and not building. I was specific when asking him.

    The other residents aren’t questioning and just removing their stuff.

    If it is indeed a violation of a code, I will certainly remove, but no code has been cited. That’s the frustrating part. He is telling me he is doing his job, but not providing me with the code. 

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    The supervisor told me that I had to speak with him. She wouldn’t talk to me. Go figga.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for the support. He already thinks I’m a jerk because I’m questioning as he has gotten condescending with me. I told him that I appreciate him doing his job and not questioning that. What I am questioning is the code that he is referring to. I’ve yet to be provided with it.

  • Anonymous

    I think this inspector is just being a d-bag. I know all about building inspectors. My parents are home builders and we have our fair share of building inspectors who really try to power play. At least in regards to new home building, they really hold most of the power. In your case, I think that he must be ridiculously bored so he’s finding some sort of pet project to keep him amused. Keep on fighting the good fight. We all support you!

  • Craig Dowler

    Have you considered going to your local Councilperson?  Those folks will do just about anything to help a voter out.

  • Shannonroselive

    Stand strong.  Until you see the code you’re (obviously not) violating, don’t touch a thing!  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1405789832 Lee Robertson

    Maybe the building inspector has something against plants?
    I don’t have any advice to offer on this,sorry.

  • http://www.bluestonegarden.com/blog Hilda

    I agree that there are building inspectors out there who seem to be power-hungry and/or just like to hassle people. We have one in our community too. But the fact is, I have a tiny bit of experience with this, and they should be able to give you a specific ordinance that you can refer to and see how loosely or he is interpreting it. The shared balcony does seem to function as a fire escape, yet the Fire Dept. isn’t seeing a problem, so I don’t know why the building inspector would want to hassle you. I do think they’re not used to being questioned — there was one in my community who seemed to get a rush out of seeing people jump to immediately comply with his requests.

    Some specific suggestions — if the supervisor won’t talk to you, then go above his/her head as well. Moving up the chain of command often yields results.

    But you might also consider contacting the local newspaper or TV station. Ask if an investigative reporter or consumer reporter can help you get to the bottom of this problem, since City Hall isn’t helping. Some of it will depend on what else is newsworthy when you make the contact, but these stories often have legs.

    I’d also urge you to carefully monitor the tone in which you communicate (both written and verbal communications). You’ll make it hard for people to dismiss your concerns or write you off as a rebel if you sound calm and reasonable rather than sullen and rebellious. Make your case quietly but persistently, even as you move up the chain of command.

    Good luck, and let us know how it works out.

  • http://sustainablog.org Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    I’ll bet this whole concept is new to him… and for bureaucrats, “new” = “suspect” (you should have seen all the run-around I got just trying to get a permit for a new backyard fence made out of a recycled composite material).

  • Pam

    I would get my elected representative involved.  If you can’t get answers an elected representative should be able to. 

  • Antonio

    I’m curious if you could get something in writing from the fire dept on official letterhead or something that you could forward on to the inspector and CC his supervisor?

  • http://twitter.com/yagtap I.AM.Hope

    When you’re living in rentals its a laundry list of antiquated rules!!! smh. If you’re not into indoor fake plastic plants, tough luck! They refuse to let you have some semblance of normalcy. You try to make city life a bit more pleasant and they suck the joy right out of it. Growing flowers/plants… a BIG NO NO! Why???

  • Cherise

    Can you get a copy of the building and/or fire code? The municipality that we deal with (as landlords) uses the “International Property Maintenance Code.” I’m sure LA’s codes are more extensive but you can ask for a copy of the code book or ask where you can purchase it. When we initially asked for the code book, our inspector told us is was not available. Two weeks later we talked to someone else in the borough and found out we were able to buy it online. We take it with us to all inspections now.

  • Crystalemontoya

    This is very similar to a situation I’m dealing with. Stand your ground. Allow the higher authority to get involved – especially as you’ve not received an actual citation. 

  • http://wannabelocavore.wordpress.com Jecka

    To play the devil’s advocate, I have a hunch that you really will end up having to move your garden, and unfortunately you probably should for a safety standpoint. Until I compared this photo in this post compared to your previous ones (which are more up-close) I didn’t think that it could be a problem at all, that it was a more private balcony. It seems from this photo it’s actually more of an outdoor walkway between your apartment’s stairwell/door and your neighbor’s.

    Let’s say for instance there is a fire or a terrorist or something to that effect that requires you or your neighbor to evacuate, but your (or your neighbor’s) stairwell is obstructed and you (they) need to rush down the other’s stairwell instead of your (their) own.  Sure, this may be overly dramatized, but it’s a situation that can actually be detrimental. The 10-15 seconds it takes to realize the stairwell is obstructed, stop, turn, and proceed to the other one may not change the outcome of the situation – they may escape just fine or they may not. But if they trip on your plants on their way to the safe stairwell… or if the 10 seconds it takes to turn around and go to the safe one… during that time the building could explode or the terrorist can intercept them…

    Again, I’m 10000% aware that this is an over-dramatized situation, but you get what I’m saying, yes? This is the kind of thing inspectors look for. If a situation like that were to occur and someone’s bike or plants or stool in the hallway is deemed to be  the reason for any situation’s horrible outcome… you, or your landlord, or the city inspector (for not finding the issue or following up on it) could be found at fault.

  • Stacy

    Mike, I would contact Joel Grover at NBC News.  This is just up his alley – he just went after the parking bureau for unethical/unlawful things they were doing.   He’s really responsive and would help, I know it.   If the other neighbors would be willing to talk to him as well, that would probably help too. 

    How can they issue a citation for remedial action without citing specifically what must be complied with?  I would continue to ask for this in writing, with the specific law or code that is not in compliance.  You’re entitled to that.

    Try Joel Grover.  This would be fun to watch on tv. 

  • Anonymous

    I would just ignore him at this point. Document all interactions with him, with date and time as accurately as possible, and wait for this “higher authority” to show up. Chances are pretty fair he’s bluffing about that. Conversely, bring your plants in for the week of the deadline, then put them back out after the re-inspection. He obviously doesn’t have any actual citation for you so screw him. Don’t waste the time and energy on him at this point.

  • Anonymous

    Victoria, there probably are pretty clear regulations about hanging planters off balconies in LA, as it is an earthquake zone. Probably best to not try that.

  • Anna

    maybe the building inspector is jealous because he doesn’t have a garden.  Maybe you should take him some homegrown food :-)

  • http://pyxiwulf.livejournal.com/ Shelli

    all those other planters from the other tenants better be gone too then!!! 

    or not because this is clearly an aesthetic issue and not a code issue.

  • http://pyxiwulf.livejournal.com/ Shelli

    all those other planters from the other tenants better be gone too then!!! 

    or not because this is clearly an aesthetic issue and not a code issue.

  • Elizabeth

    I would wait for the “higher authority” and band together with neighbors.  He’s probably not getting to do what he wants somewhere along the line and is taking it out on the next guy.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for the tip Stacy. If it comes to that, I will certainly contact him. At this point, I’m just making sure I have all my bases covered and finding out what’s going on. Stay tuned…

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    I get what you are saying, but if that’s the case, then half of the buildings in LA are out of code because a lot of them only have one stairway. WHAT IF that stairway wasn’t accessible?

    I’m concerned with the code he is “citing.” Common sense doesn’t apply when citing city codes and restrictions. Sadly.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Earthquake or not, I’m not going to go the hanging route especially since people have to walk under it. 

    I have a vertical garden thing that I haven’t used because of that.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    I don’t have to move anything yet. Just want to make sure that I got everything in order before I make decisions. Thanks for the support.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Will consider that if it comes to it. Thanks for the advice.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Exactly. I’m not until I do!

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for the deep insight ;-)

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for the advice Hilda. I’ve definitely been mindful of my communication. I respect and understand that he is doing his job. I can’t hate on that. 

    I told him that I appreciate him doing his job and am curious as to the code he is citing.

    At this point, I haven’t been told to remove anything and just making sure that I’m getting everything in order.

    Appreciate the tips and advice.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    The woman in the building across the way had to remove her add-on. Not sure what the deal with it was.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Certainly will if need be. At this point making sure that I have everything in order.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Good call. I’m working on that.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Hahhaa. No clue what the deal is. My landlord said they’ll make room for me to put everything downstairs, but don’t want to if I don’t have to.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for the tip. Will look into it.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Nothing yet. We shall see what happens.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    I don’t want to do anything to put my landlord in jeopardy by doing that. Still gathering all the information and keep the plants outside.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Hahhaah. Plant envy.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Yes. He said everything from everyone.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Absolutely. Waiting and gathering information at this point.

  • http://www.cheapflightsvancouver.org Glenn

    This inspector sounds like a power hungry bureaucrat. Wait until he can tell you specifically what code you are violating.  I can’t see how it would cause problems for your landlord, you just want to be informed of the code, so that you can comply.

  • charmcity balconygarden

    You are probably right, but some people are strange about things like this. I’ve known people who has had problems stemming from complaints … but these were condos. were your neighbors also cited?

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    The landlord said as long as their is a pathway, he was fine. 

    Thanks for the link.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    That’s what I’m waiting for.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    All of us were.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=624692882 Katherine Kelley

    I think it is pretty awesome that your landlord is working with you on this.  I can’t think of many that would be OK with moving someone’s personal garden to another area on the property.  You got lucky there, Mike. :)

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Absolutely. We shall see what goes down.

  • Dana

    And an I-pod or similar voice recorder would be helpful.

  • B.

    Maybe someone in the building is afraid of bugs & simply plays ‘low key’,  while calling the inspector to “do smth. about all that” you started to spread through the neighborhood.

  • http://wannabelocavore.wordpress.com Jecka

    I totally, 100% understand what you’re saying, and I agree – the inspector should do his job and tell you the exact city code. I just know what one inspector in a bad mood can do, as in my job we get inspected and audited by the EPA and other local environmental agencies randomly. They look for the same stuff every single year, but if you get one disgruntled or idiotic inspector one year, they’ll ding you on things that none of the others for the past two decades have. It just takes one guy, and that indeed sucks.

    Regardless, I do hope you get this sorted out! Kudos to having an awesome landlord, too. I’m doubtful my landlord would ever help me in this kind of situation! :)

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    I doubt that because everyone was instructed to remove their things.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Thanks. That’s the thing – it gets to the whim of an individual. 

    Shall see what unfolds.

  • http://www.eattheyard.com Eattheyard

    A code has to exist for you to be against it.  To cite you, fine you, or evict you, a code will have to be referenced in any of that paperwork to make it legit — to justify the action that is being taken against you.

    I believe there is also an obligation on the the part of the city and the city’s representative to provide you with the specific code and the language of the code so that you can better comply with it.

  • Eldean

    It is a safety issue.  All buildings are required to
    have two sources of egress, a min. of 3 feet wide.  If someone was injured in a fire because you
    had your pots in the way, you and the building owner could be held liable.  This is true for anything on the balconies
    that are considered egress.  The reason
    we have these laws is because people have died due to blocked egress.  It is not arbitrary.  Although I understand your desire to have a garden, gardens do not trump safety.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    I responded to the other comment you made, but I’m looking for the inspector to cite the code, which he hasn’t.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Exactly. If it’s code, I’d like to know the code, so I can properly comply.

  • Eldean

    It is found in the Universal Building Code, that is used Nationally

    .   There are also local laws for each state, county and city.  Most cities have their codes available on line.  I know you see thing an balconies all the time.  My concern is if there was a fire you could get in much more trouble than a code violation.  Maybe you could come up with a way to hang them off the balcony.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    This isn’t about what I, you or anyone else thinks. That is all irrelevant. I have asked him for the code that he is referring to, which he hasn’t provided.

  • http://marysgardeningendeavors.blogspot.com Mary C.

    What a load of crap.

    I say tell him you need the code reference so you can figure out what exactly you need to do to fix it, try to do it by email so there’s a written record of him either refusing to Do His Job and give you the code or perhaps miraculously the text of the code you are *violating*. If he gives you run around again, just to cover your bum, I would ask for his superior’s name and contact.

    Come to think of it… were you served an actual citation notice? Not that public memo, like one directly to you for your *violation*? Was there any list of what the citations *are* on the public notice? You might ask the inspector this along with whatever the citation number (not fire code section) is for your violation.

    And if it comes to talking to his superior you might mention the lack of violation notice, code, etc…

    Good luck.

  • http://marysgardeningendeavors.blogspot.com Mary C.

    That might be nice anyways actually. Not the complying with A*hat inspector guy, but a downstairs space for growing. Your plants would get alot more light, and it’s in a good position to get afternoon shade from the building during the heatwaves this summer.

    But see if you can do it as an expansion ;)

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Nothing yet and the memo is now gone. I haven’t been told to remove anything yet. I’m just getting all the info compiled for if/when it goes down.

  • Liz

    Did he actually write you a citation? Without a code on it? That’s akin to saying “It is because I say so” and won’t stand up to any legal scrutiny.

    The humor here is there are so many apartments in LA that could legitimately use a visit from an inspector for far more serious offenses. 

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Nothing yet. Not only that if what he is saying is true, then the actual structure of most apartments are fire hazards to begin with.

  • http://twitter.com/MyVegetableGard Sandy Campbell

    You are living proof that most people can figure out a way to grow their own vegetables.  If all households grew their own food, the world would be a safer, secure world.

  • http://twitter.com/MyVegetableGard Sandy Campbell

    Back on the code issue, there probably isn’t  code that says you can not have a garden on your fire escape.  There may be one that says you can not block the travel path.

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Right. It wouldn’t say anything specific about a garden, but whatever it says, I haven’t been cited exactly what it is.

  • Brian Coombs

    Mike, here is what the International Property Maintenance Code says regarding egress.  702.1 General – A safe, continuous and unobstructed path of travel shall be provided from any point in a building or structure to the public way.   Means of egress shall comply with the International Fire Code.
    I am certified as a Prop & Maint Inspt, but not Fire.  It seems by your photos that you meet code with a continuous and unobstructed path of travel.  I don’t believe the Fire Code mandates two paths of egress, for example; a single family home is only required to have one door.  If the Fire Departemnt does not have an issue, then you should be ok.
    Brian Coombs http://wastatecodes.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.UrbanOrganicGardener.com Mike Lieberman

    Thanks for the info Brian.

  • Niteflyrwoman

    Legally if it’s not in writing then there is nothing wrong with it.