FREMONT — Two things are clear about a preschool expansion gone wrong: City officials never should have given the school's owner, Maroof Mendez, a building permit, and Mendez is the one paying the price for the city's mix-up, to the tune of about $65,000.
The city approved Mendez's plan last year to expand her Irvington district preschool, neglecting the fact that it didn't include a sprinkler system required under city code.
After spending about $100,000 on the expansion, Mendez, a Fremont resident and owner of ABC Magic Moments preschool, said she will have to take out more loans to install the system.
"Where does a small business find $65,000?" she asked. "I walked into Fremont, they led me down the wrong path, and now I'm in a big mess."
Mendez, who operates two schools in Fremont, said she never would have gone ahead with the expansion had she known about the costly sprinkler requirement.
Meanwhile, Planning Department officials say they are instituting new guidelines to prevent future oversights.
"There was just a breakdown in communication down the line," plan check engineer Raymond Cheng said. "That's why we we've started this whole process, because we knew things like this were happening."
Mendez bought the dilapidated 1,600-square-foot building at 4600 Carol Ave. with the intention of adding an 800-square-foot classroom to boost enrollment from 31 to 53 students.
But Mendez's project had a complicated twist for city planners.
The building, which Mendez says she bought in 2008 for $270,000 and spent another $80,000 to renovate, sits on land she leases from the Fremont Unified School District.
Jurisdiction over school district projects rests with the Division of the State Architect, but a private preschool on a school district property is a gray area, Planning Director Jill Keimach said.
The city decided to assume jurisdiction over the project after Mendez presented planners with a school district letter telling her to obtain approvals and permits from "applicable local agencies."
But not everyone in the city was on the same page.
Howard Hancock, the city's fire and life safety plan checker, assumed the state architect would handle the sprinkler issue, Keimach said. He was aware that the sprinkler system wasn't in the plans, but didn't put it on the checklist that went to Mendez and her contractor.
Hancock did tell city officials that he thought the state should have jurisdiction, Keimach added. But that wasn't communicated to planners, who proceeded with issuing a building permit last spring.
A two-page city report to Mendez included one item saying that sprinklers "may" have to be installed.
Mendez said she learned of the sprinkler system requirement and the jurisdictional uncertainty only after construction was completed in August, when a Fire Department inspector spotted the code violation.
"He told me someone dropped the ball," Mendez said.
With the start of preschool just a few weeks away, Mendez had to cancel her vacation and huddle with city officials to figure out what to do.
The city agreed to give her a year to install the sprinkler system and let her open the school after she spent an extra $10,000 on an automated fire alarm. It also agreed to refund $2,000 in permit fees, and not to charge her for additional staff time.
Mendez is still getting cost estimates on installing the sprinkler, which she expects will tally about $65,000. The work will involve cutting through the walls, ceilings and the street to tap into the water main.
Mendez's only legal recourse would be to sue her contractor, Gem Builders, which was responsible for knowing the city's codes, but she won't do it.
"The city is the one who messed up. They should take responsibility," she said. City officials declined to pay for the sprinkler system upfront and let her pay it back over time, she added.
It's unclear what would have happened had Fremont sent Mendez to the state architect from the start. Cheng said the agency might not have required the sprinkler, but it also might not have allowed her to do the project at all because it's an addition to a prefabricated building.
State architect spokesman Eric Lamoureux wouldn't speculate. "From our standpoint, all we know is the project didn't need to go through (us)," he said.
The city's revamped plan check process, which will be fully implemented this spring, had been in the works before the Mendez project, Cheng said. To avoid miscommunication, division heads now meet weekly to go over pending projects.
"If this plan came through today, the fire plan checker would be in the room with the planners," Keimach said. "We would have stopped the review and said it was a (state architect) project."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-353-7002. Read his blog at www.ibabuzz.com/tricitybeat.