Landlord Racks Up Fines, Files Lawsuit

Markeshia Ricks PhotoA landlord amassing thousands of dollars in blight fines on a deteriorating building he owns in Westville is suing the city for harassment over another property he owns at the edge of Wooster Square. The city’s suing him back.

DAVID SEPULVEDA PhotoEdward Roubeni owns the buildings at 781 Whalley Ave. and 50 Fitch St. in Westville through several limited liability corporations including 87 BAPAZ, 613 BAPAZ, and BAPAZ WHALLEY AVE.

GOOGLEHe also owns 873-887 Grand Ave. at the edge of Wooster Square through another ACHTOV LLC.

For 133 days (and counting) he’s been incurring $100 a day fines on the vacant, deteriorating building at the West River-adjacent building at 781 Whalley Ave. It used to be the home to the World War II-era Aerial Map factory, then the Community Action Agency. He is accumulating similar fines at the Grand Avenue property but how much is unclear because the city record for the property has become a part of the litigation and is unavailable for public review. As of April 9, the city is filing a suit against Roubeni’s ACHTOV that would among other things foreclose the Grand Avenue property and turn it over to the city.

Last November Roubeni filed a lawsuit in Connecticut Superior Court alleging that the city “selectively enforced its blight regulations, relentlessly pursuing and harassing ACHTOV LLC for alleged blight conditions,” at the Grand Avenue property and other properties he owns in the city. Nearly a month later, the city began applying the $100 a day fine but that was only after months of pressing him to clean up his act in Westville. (Roubeni could not be reached for comment for this story.)

City Assistant Corporation Counsel Roderick R. Williams filed a response to Roubeni’s suit. He argued that the lawsuit has no statutory basis because municipalities have general immunity “from liability for its tortious acts.” He also noted that Roubeni hadn’t exhausted his efforts to remedy the city’s concerns prior to filing the lawsuit.

“The instant lawsuit appears to allege that the plaintiff met with unwanted or disagreeable results in certain administrative procedures in New Haven (both in planning and zoning and with respect to blight) and there are no allegations that these matters were pursued such that all available administrative remedies were exhausted,” Williams wrote. “This information is necessary in order for the City to adequately defend this lawsuit.”

No Progress

LIVABLE CITY INTIATIVEIn late July 2017, the city’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative, inspected the property at 781 Whalley Ave. Shortly after a walkthrough of the property, LCI Neighborhood Specialist for Westville Jillian Driscoll sent Roubeni by certified mail a notice of violation citing the building for the need to replace plywood over doors and windows that had either gone missing or become damaged; the need to remove graffiti tags from all over the building including the front; and the need to maintain the property’s landscaping throughout the year.

Roubeni, who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., technically had just 10 days upon receiving the notice of violation to address them. The city, in fact, gave Roubeni four months — much to the consternation of the area Alder Richard Furlow — before it began enforcing the $100 a day penalty.

When that notice of violation came back undelivered in late August, Driscoll had it redelivered by a state marshal. From the date of her walkthrough in July, Driscoll has taken notes of her every step, including when she took pictures, emailed back and forth or met with Roubeni’s attorney, Miguel Almodovar, his property manager Paula Squillacote, and attended community meetings. After months of communication and no progress on addressing the violations, she began applying the $100 a day fine. Those fines started accumulating on Dec. 5, 2017.

“I was in constant contact with Attorney Almodovar, Alder Furlow, and property managers for the property, attended community meetings and inspected the building multiple times,” Driscoll said. “Every time I visited the property again, I was surprised that there was still no progress on the blighted building. It’s an eyesore for the Westville community.”

LIVABLE CITY INTIATIVEIn February, city Building Official Jim Turcio issued a notice of an unsafe structure. He wrote that the building at 781 Whalley Ave. was open to trespass after the building had been struck by a car. Turcio noted that the part of the exterior wall had collapsed because of the crash. Roubeni was required to obtain a permit to repair the wall and an engineering report to ensure that the building was safe and properly closed to prevent trespassing. For about four weeks, the building was open to trespass where the car had crashed into it, according to Driscoll’s notes.

Turcio said that Roubeni did eventually get the building closed up and he did hire the structural engineer, though the building department has yet to receive the report from the engineer.

On March 23, the city placed a lien on the Whalley Avenue building, noting that as of March 12, the accumulated fines had reached a whopping $9,800. It’s been over 30 days since the city ran that tally. Roubeni not only hasn’t paid the fines but he also hasn’t mitigated the city’s concerns with his building.

In the lawsuit against the city, Roubeni said he has sought to invest and develop the property. He further alleges that he has been prevented from doing so because of the “commenced or threatened” blight enforcement by the city. The lawsuit also alleges that the city has refused to issue zoning and site plan approval based on the alleged blighted conditions of not only the Grand Avenue property but properties like the one on Whalley Avenue.

The Whalley Avenue building is one of the large properties in Westville that remains stubbornly empty but not because of a lack of trying on the part of the city. Two years ago, a development group had a contract to purchase the crumbling two-building 3.6-acre property along the West River. The plan was to upgrade both buildings at 781 Whalley Ave. and 50 Fitch Street to put in 570 self-storage units. There also would be room for other uses such as an art studio. Neighbors weren’t excited about that use but their lack of enthusiasm isn’t what killed the deal. The significant cost of cleaning up the site killed it.

Lizzy Donius who heads the Westville Village Renaissance Alliance said though the building isn’t on the market, she and the city’s economic development officials have spoken with potential developers and taken them to the site hoping to spark an interest that turns into an offer.

“The impact of that blighted building at the entrance of the Village is significant,” she said. “You have the foundation of two historic mill buildings, with the West River flowing behind them. You have gorgeous views of West Rock. You’re across the street from Edgewood Park, you’re a part of our wonderful walking Village, and a 10-minute bus ride to the Green.”

She said she hopes that the action LCI has taken “on what is clearly a blighted property” will encourage Roubeni to sell it and the 50 Fitch Street building, which is part of the same parcel and has had its own problems.

Donius said she and the city will keep pursuing a right fit for the property because it currently drags down the aesthetic of the neighborhood. She noted that finding the right developer is complicated because of the significant investment needed to remediate the property.

“Imagine if these buildings became 100 plus units of housing, four stories, or a retirement community for people who want to be where they can walk to stuff and also have easy access to all downtown has to offer,” she said. “Add landscaping along the river, connecting that property more directly with Westville Village. 

“A great development there would also help to visually connect Westville Village to Southern [Connecticut State University] and the Beaver Hills neighborhood as well,” she added. “Westville Village begins to feel more like an anchor for the West side of the city. It’s very exciting.” 

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posted by: NHVCyclist on April 25, 2018  1:21pm

That Wooster Square building has been an unaddressed nuisance for years.  Major contributor to the Grand Ave blight.

I have 1 issue with the article - I wouldn’t call this person a “Landlord.”

The definition of “Landlord” is someone who rents land, a building, or apartment to a tenant.  There are no tenants here,nor is there any active effort to find a tenant.
The “Available” sign on the Westville building is outdated.  Neither the Westville or Wooster Square building is being marketed for rent.  Not that it would matter…neither is rentable in that condition.

“Landlord” implies a service-type business.  No service is being done here, not to any tenant, nor to the neighborhoods affected.  At best, this is a “holding company.”

posted by: denny says on April 25, 2018  3:12pm

The $100 a day fine is not enough. The owner is land banking the property and the property is worth millions. So, 365 x $100 = $36,500 a year. This isn’t high enough to dissuade the land bankers. The $100 a day fine should double to $200 a day after 30 days, and then increase to $400 a day after 60 days and so on and so forth until we get to $1,000 a day. Then we’re talking real money and this will get the attention of the landlord. The $100 a day fine is so small it wont even cover the cost to the city of sending out the building dept and LCI.

posted by: OutofTown on April 25, 2018  3:45pm

The arrogance of some property owners is amazing.  The City of New Haven gave the owner every opportunity to comply with the rules.  He chose to ignore his neighbors.  Throw the book at him.  Blight liens are an effective tool to gain compliance for recalcitrant people.

posted by: Markeshia Ricks on April 25, 2018  4:01pm

@NHVCyclist,

Mr. Roubeni owns 50 Fitch St., which is behind 781 Whalley Ave. In fact, the two addresses are part of the same parcel of land. 50 Fitch is very much occupied as a commercial property with rent-paying tenants including a state parole office and Ocean Management.—Markeshia

posted by: denny says on April 25, 2018  4:34pm

Perhaps we new haveners most affected by this property owner ought to be more active. Do we have a phone number or address for Mr. Roubeni so we can express our dissatisfaction with his actions. How would he feel if this was happening in HIS backyard? Seems he is one of those people who want to TAKE from New Haven, but not GIVE.  Is there a court date where the residents can show up?

posted by: wendy1 on April 25, 2018  6:04pm

This is the guy they invented eminent domain for——take these teardowns and flatten them.

I suggest a greenspace/park for the Grand Ave. site.  Many of us locals would be happy to plant it with annuals and perrennials.  I am sick of these absentee slumlords landbanking near me.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 25, 2018  7:37pm

Question for NHI readers who are familiar with FOIA - how does the filing of litigation make a public record unavailable for public review?

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 25, 2018  10:20pm

Denny, I have no problem with increasing the fine for blight. But this fine, like other municipal fines, is set in state law and would require state legislation in order to be increased.

My former colleagues at the Office of Legislative Research did a nice summary of municipal powers regarding blight https://www.cga.ct.gov/2017/rpt/pdf/2017-R-0059.pdf.

posted by: Morgan Barth on April 26, 2018  8:56am

I think we can all agree that the city should use all available powers to make the landlord clean up the building and/or to recover the fines (and other clean-up costs) and/or condemn and take over the lot.

Yet, it is a shame that my Westville neighbors helped shut down the self-storage proposal.  I think they thought they would get a better offer from a different developer (and may NHI commenters were making outlandish suggestions about what “they” should put into the lot - Starbucks, condos, Drs offices, etc.)  If the neighborhood had supported this and the city got behind a grant for the enviro clean-up maybe we’d have a clean, safe, well-lit building.  No, self-storage isn’t my first choice for my neighborhood…but it’s a heckuva lot better than blight!

MB

posted by: UrbanGirl on April 26, 2018  12:03pm

Ripping down the Grand Ave building for a greenspace would be counter-productive. That stretch of Grand Ave was once the commercial edge of Wooster Square. It can be again with a row of stores.  A building like that brings in good tax dollars, and can bring a street online as a neighborhood center. Though questionably re-developed in recent years - the city zoning code allows for apartments to be built in a store space - a regulation that needs to be removed - it is a building that can be turned around without big money or big subsidies. Renovations are a fraction of new construction and can be done in phases. An old building is a vital part of the economy, as it allows more people to get into the game instead of just the Very Big.

I hope the city can purchase the building so something more positive can happen to it, and the owner can invest closer to home where he can keep an eye on things more closely.

BTW, installing a park or green space just anywhere doesn’t work. They aren’t magical - they don’t automatically heal problems around them. The power of a park lies in its rarity. WSq already has plenty of these fringe green spaces scattered around it -which achieve nothing but collect trash. The power of WSq is Wooster Square Park. More buildings along Grand and in the empty spaces will strengthen both the park and the neighborhood.

posted by: wendy1 on April 26, 2018  12:35pm

Morgan, self-storage is coming to Wooster Square by way of UHaul on Water ST….soon I think.

posted by: Pat from Westville on April 26, 2018  1:08pm

I think it was more than neighborhood opposition that killed the self-storage plan, the costs of remediating the building—lead, asbestos, etc.—played a role too. I wonder whether it would be less costly just to demolish & build from new, even taking into consideration that demolition might be slightly more expensive given the need to contain hazmat materials. Just a thought.

posted by: Jobsfin on April 26, 2018  5:58pm

I met several times with the prospective storage developer who said the current owner kept increasing the sale price as the costs to remediate and renovate continued to climb with further study until the project became untenable. He was keen to do the project. It was not the neighborhood that stopped him.

posted by: ADAK on April 26, 2018  6:05pm

The 781 Whalley Ave building is ripe for apartments. With views of West Rock, a large parking lot for cars, property running along West River, and at the edge of Westville Village—I am surprised people who have built Novella or Corsair haven’t shown interest in it.

Maybe they have? With a deteriorating building and out of town owner, the future of this building is bleak. What does Mr. Roubeni even expect to happen? Someone’s just going to want to buy his broken down lot? I hope the city takes this building and land away from him eventually.

Edward Roubeni’s address if anyone wants to send him some fan mail: https://opengovus.com/new-york-state-corporation/1845405

posted by: Morgan Barth on April 27, 2018  10:34am

@ Pat and @ ADAK

I stand corrected. My declaration the community opposition stopped the last project was overly-simplistic (development projects and land deals are complicated) and incorrect (sounds like the real issue were rising purchase and clean-up costs.)  Thanks for clarifying.

With that said…

I’m somewhat dismayed to see my neighbors repeatedly come out to object to projects that they appear to feel are not yet perfect or too “low rent” for Westville.  The NHI extensively covered community objections to Dollar General (the community wanted more upscale retail but there were NO other takers); to turning various zombie mansions into apartments (the community wants someone to restore them to former glory, but again no takers), the new Delaney’s (it wasn’t pretty enough), the list goes on.  I love Westville and I want the best.  But I’m also a realist - we have a bunch of empty storefronts, abandoned buildings, etc and I’d like to our city be more supportive of development in general, and specifically take pretty good deals rather than hold out for unrealistic perfect plans for which there are no investors or developers.