A 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.
Edward 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.
He 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.”
In 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.”
In 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.”