Rural Business Owners Battle Menifee Officials on Use Permits

Jack McGrath, who has operated an auto repair shop in Menifee for nearly 40 years, says he was told...

Jack McGrath, who has operated an auto repair shop in Menifee for nearly 40 years, says he was told he would never again need a conditional use permit.
In some ways, Menifee could be described as the extreme example of the inherent struggles present when the old meets the new.

Rural charm? Sure, we want that -- some more than others. Modern housing and business development? Yes, we want to grow; we're just not sure how much.

Before 2008, Riverside County told us what to do. Since then, the City of Menifee has told us what to do. But wait; the city folks' hands are tied in some cases because of pre-existing County action that can't be undone.

We have farmers. We have soccer moms. We have bumpy dirt roads. We have crowded, narrow freeway overpasses.

And in the middle of all this, you have situations like the one pitting J & A McGrath Auto against City Hall.

OK, so it's not really McGrath vs. City of Menifee. This isn't a boxing match, or even a court battle. But it does show what can happen when Menifee's old guard meets the constantly evolving governmental structure of one of the county's newest and fastest growing cities.

Jack McGrath opened his auto repair business in what was then unincorporated Menifee in 1976. A third-generation member of a family that has lived in the Menifee Valley since the 1930s, McGrath takes pride in his belief that J & A McGrath Auto is the oldest continuously family operated business in Menifee, if not all of Riverside County.

But today, McGrath and his wife Ann say they are being wrapped up in red tape by the City of Menifee, which has notified them that they must pay thousands of dollars in order to have a current conditional use permit and make any improvements the city code enforcement department deems necessary.

City council member Tom Fuhrman, who represents the district in which McGrath Auto is located, estimates that as many as 300 small businesses in Menifee's rural area could face code violations and fees because of codes that were not enforced during the transition period from county to city jurisdiction.

Scott Mann

City officials say that while they are respectful of the status of longtime business owners, they are simply upholding the laws that apply concerning zoning ordinances, business licenses and building permits.

"Tom Fuhrman and I are very supportive of the rural business owners," Mayor Scott Mann said. "If possible, there needs to be a transition phase in all this. The McGraths are a stalwart family in this area. There's no need for City Hall and the McGraths to be fighting.

"But at the same time, our code enforcement department is required to uphold the law. We want to work with local businesses, but if a business changes or expands in any way, they must re-apply for a permit. We need to find a happy medium."

That may be easier said than done.

According to McGrath, he did purchase a conditional use permit from the county when he first opened his business in the 1970s. Years later, he renewed it as required. But more than 10 years ago, he said, the county changed the zoning ordinance covering the stretch of Murrieta Road where his business stands. The zoning was changed from "rural residential" to "scenic commercial highway."

McGrath said he was told by then-County Supervisor Kay Ceniceros that he was no longer required to have a conditional use permit for his property. Everything was peaceful after that, with McGrath continuing to operate his business on a small piece of land at the corner of Murrieta Road and Corson Avenue. In 2008, Menifee became a city and took over code enforcement from the county. Then came the first letter, dated March 25, 2012.

In that letter from Lisa Gordon, senior planner for the City of Menifee, McGrath was informed that a check of his records indicated two previous CUPs had expired and that he must apply for a new permit at a cost of $4,791.96. That fee would only begin a process in which city officials would inspect his business and determine what improvements must be made to his decades-old business. The cost of compliance could end up being much more.

"I said, 'What the hell are you talking about? I've been in business here 39 years,' " McGrath said Tuesday as he sat in his office. "They said the CUP expired under Riverside County, but now the city has code enforcement. I would have never known if I hadn't received that letter.

"I told them I was told years ago by Kay Ceniceros that I no longer needed a permit. They said, 'Do you have that in writing?' No, I don't. They were just making the change, and I took her at her word. Nothing was said about it until this letter."



Tom Fuhrman

It's difficult to determine whether these older businesses made significant changes that required new permits or exactly how much confusion there was during the transition from county to city jurisdiction. Another small business owner in the same rural area -- Troy Helton of Helton Hay & Feed on Scott Road -- also received a letter from the city requiring new permits and fees, according to Fuhrman.

Helton did not return a phone call seeking comment.

"These businesses are coming to the attention of the city through the business license registration program," said Carmen Cave, City of Menifee commmunity development director. "When a business applies for a license, the city checks to see that they are in compliance with all codes and permit requirements.

"In some cases, no proper permits were applied for or issued. In other instances, the permits have expired. Each time a letter goes out from the City, we explain a way that the business can come into compliance with the law so that they can decide how and when to apply for permits, and what kinds of applications they will be required to complete."

McGrath says if extensive improvements were required to make him compliant, the cost could put him out of business after almost 40 years.

"If they require us to put in curbside, sidewalks, gutters, things like that, it could soon be $100,000," McGrath said. "That would bankrupt us.

"If they have it for anyone, I would think there would be a grandfather clause for us. You know, they could say, 'You're OK, Jack. You are Menifee.' But when I talked to Lisa (Gordon) three weeks ago, she said there is no other avenue I can take."

Many business owners in the local rural area such as Jack McGrath have received requests for compliance from the city.

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