Code Dogs Hound the Plank

— Ask a nonresident of Imperial Beach to name a restaurant or bar in San Diego County's southernmost beach town. If he can name anything at all, it likely will be Ye Olde Plank Inn. The tavern has occupied the ground floor of the two-story building at the west end of Palm Avenue for nearly four decades. In that time, it's opened every day at 6:00 a.m. and closed every night at 2:00 a.m. "The Plank," as it's known locally, has achieved institution status in Imperial Beach. But according to its owner, 73-year-old Al Winkelman, the Plank bar is under attack by a city government that wants the venerable watering hole gone.

It's only 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday in December. But already, seven customers occupy barstools at the end of the Plank's three-sided bar closest to the front door. Most drink coffee -- better than most bar coffee -- while a couple nurse beers and nibble on hot wings. They're clearly regulars, and judging by the boisterousness of their conversation, they all know each other. They're talking and laughing so loudly that it's difficult to hear the very soft-spoken Winkelman say, "That blonde with her back to us is a lawyer from Chula Vista. And this woman on the corner, her name is Tappan. Her grandfather is the one that started the Tappan kitchen range company. The guy sitting next to her is a retired SEAL. There used to be a man who came in here damn near every day who was one of the original people with Apple Computer."

The Plank's decor combines elements of three or four themes. Over the bar hangs a palm frond ceiling reminiscent of a Baja-style palapa. The bar and tabletops are trimmed with molding cut to look like nautical cables. Surf paraphernalia hangs on the walls. The back room's dusty-cornered concrete floor, neon beer signs, and two pool tables give it a middle-American honky-tonk look. Except for the ruby earring adorning his left ear, nothing about Winkelman's appearance says "owns a popular beachside bar." He's dressed in comfortable shoes, gray slacks, and two windbreakers zipped up against the damp morning air. His thick blond-gone-gray hair, roughly parted on the left, lies tousled on his head. His soft blue eyes reflect his kind, gentle manner. His nickname, Uncle Al, fits perfectly. "I got that nickname in 1979 when my nephew spent a summer working in the bar with me. He was always calling to me, 'Uncle Al, Uncle Al.' Some of the customers thought that was funny and started calling me Uncle Al too."

Asked when he bought Ye Olde Plank Inn, Winkelman answers, "Oh, I can't remember. Between 35 and 40 years ago. Let's say 37 years ago." During the first 30 or so of those years, Winkelman says business was great and life was a breeze in his bar by the beach. But starting "6 or 7" years ago, Winkelman says he and the Plank became the focus of what he calls harassment by the City of Imperial Beach in the form of the municipality's code enforcement department.

"I'll show you what I mean." He hops off his bar stool and walks behind the bar. "Around 1999, all of a sudden we've got a brand-new fire inspector, and he needs a whole bunch of things done. For instance, I had a fire extinguisher back here. It had been in the same place for 30 years, and all my employees knew where it was. But he said we had to move it. This back door over here, I had to build a new door for it. Before, I had a door with bars on it, but the way it was built, it wasn't really a door, but we could have pushed it out in an emergency. We had to replace that with this door that has a panic bar. This building was built in 1886. Since it was built, the front door has always swung in. But they decided it had to swing out. I didn't want to have it swing out because of foot traffic here on the sidewalk. It will either be blocking traffic or, if it's closed, someone is going to push it and smash someone's face with the door. So I went out and bought all these hinges here that allow the door to swing in or out. When we open at 6:00 in the morning, we swing it in and lock it in the open position. It stays that way until we close at 2:00 a.m. It's what we'd done for 30 years. So why we had to change it to swing out is beyond me. Especially, since the fire code says a door only has to swing out if the room capacity is 50 or more. You can see on the sign right there, my capacity is 36. I pointed that out to them, but they wanted it this way anyway."

Another source of grief with the fire inspector was the palapa-style ceiling over the bar area. "We put that grass ceiling on there on Labor Day of 1969," Winkelman says, "and there was fire retardant on it and everything. But they wanted it all down. So we had to take everything down and replace it with newer stuff that won't burn. But it is a lot of time and effort to take everything down and research it and order it and put it up there. And it cost a lot of money."

Though he didn't like it, Winkelman spent the time and money to comply with the fire inspector's wishes. But he drew a line in the sand when the City said he could no longer park his cars on the small lawn on the corner of Palm and Seacoast, part of the same property the Plank sits on. Standing out on the patchy lawn under a couple of palm trees, Winkelman explains, "I own three Corvettes, and I used to park a couple of them on the grass right here. I would drive them up over the curb and park them here. This is my property, I own it, and it's zoned commercial. Now along comes David Garcias" -- Imperial Beach's director of code enforcement -- "and he tells me that I can't park here, that I have to have a driveway, and it has to be concreted, I can't park on the lawn, and all that stuff. Basically, I told him to go away, quit bothering me. I am legal. So anyway, after quite a while he comes over here with the ordinance telling me, 'This ordinance says it has to be parked on concrete.' And I said, 'David, this ordinance refers to single-family and two-family dwellings in a residential area. This is commercial property.' He came back one or two days later and said, 'I found a new ordinance that does affect you,' and he showed it to me. I read it, and he had kept the entire ordinance, but he changed a couple of words and deleted the last clause, 'in a residential area.' And so then he was able to apply it to me."

Believing Garcias had illegally altered the municipal code to fit the situation, Winkelman refused to comply and continued parking on the grass next to the Plank. Garcias, he says, "continued pounding me on it. And he even came out here and posted a notice right there on the corner of my building condemning my property, for being a public nuisance, unsafe, and unfit for human habitation."

Winkelman adds, "It's harassment. And it's selective. I can drive you up and down this street," he points south down Seacoast, "and show you cars parked on gravel, on grass, on all kinds of things, but they are all perfectly all right. And I can show you pictures that I took nearly two years ago that I showed to the city council when they had me up there for this big fine that they were charging me -- $100 or $200 a day -- for parking on my lawn. The same cars are still on the same spots two years later."

Garcias doesn't deny condemning the Plank due to Winkelman's noncompliance on the parking issue, though he vehemently denies the accusation that he personally altered an ordinance to make it illegal for Winkelman to park his Corvettes next to the Plank. With an audible laugh, he says, "We would never do that. He has gone in front of judges and the city council, and in each case, they said, 'The law was correct.' I can't change the law. I am only an enforcement person. I go off of what the city code says, and the city code is enacted by the city council after public hearings and all that stuff."

Winkelman believes the fire inspector and code enforcement department were sicced on him by a gentrification-minded city council that "doesn't want any alcohol near the beach." Ed Kravitz, the publisher of a news and opinion website called saveIB.com, which is critical of the city government, agrees with Winkelman's assessment. "They want to make bars an endangered species," Kravitz says. "And they know if Al is closed for more than 90 days, the zoning goes back to residential. So they'd like to hang him up for any reason to close him. And the city council is known to use the code enforcement department to punish people and businesses they don't like."

Ted Powers, former commissioner of the now-defunct Imperial Beach planning commission, shares Kravitz's view. "The council," he says, "uses the code enforcement department as a revenue generator, and they use it as a political battle axe to punish people."

Kravitz adds, "The code enforcement department should be complaint driven. But in IB, it hasn't been for the last decade. It's proactively driven, meaning that they are out looking for violations. The intent was -- and I believe this was said publicly at a council meeting in 1995 or '96 -- that they were going to use code enforcement to revitalize Imperial Beach."

Garcias denies that he's being prompted by the city council to enforce codes at the Plank. Rather, he says he's responding to "a rising number of citizen complaints. In Mr. Winkelman's case, I can't be too specific because there is litigation involved, but I can generally say, all of them were citizen complaints. We always let the owner know they're in violation. And I have to admit, there have been people who are very resistant to cleaning up. Sometimes they say, 'I have been doing this for 50 years, why are you taking this to me now?' And a lot of times it is because I got a citizen complaint and I have to."

Asked why after 30-plus years of peaceful existence, the Plank has become the subject of citizen complaints, Garcias points to the recent rise in property values in Imperial Beach. "This city is in clean-up mode. We've got a lot of new owners who paid, let's say, $600,000 or $700,000 for their new home. And they get in the house and they look at their back-yard neighbor who has seven or eight junk cars in the back yard. So they call me to complain. My job is to respond to those complaints."

Faced with a condemnation of his property, Winkelman stopped parking his cars on the lawn. But he's sued the City over the issue. "I don't like the idea of going to court," he says. "It is costing me money, and in a way it is foolish and stupid. But I am not going to lie down and roll over and play dead for them. That is what most people would do, but I am not going to do it. So if it costs me $5000, $10,000, $20,000, $50,000 to fight them, I am doing it."

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