Code Crackdown Complicates A Dream

Thomas Breen PhotosAt 33, Antonio Contreras is watching hair turn white.

He blames zoning rules that have landed him and other small-business and property owners in trouble in the Annex neighborhood.

Contreras moved from Mexico to New Haven 18 years ago. He has run his own auto body shop and used car dealership in the Annex since 2016. He said his hair transformation stems from the stress of navigating city zoning and permitting regulations in a language, and a culture, that he still sometimes struggles to understand.

Contreras was one of 10 property owners cited for a variety of code violations by the city’s Building Department and the city’s anti-blight Livable City Initiative (LCI) after the city conducted its latest interdepartmental neighborhood sweep in the Annex during the week of July 16. The city has conducted similar neighborhood sweeps in Fair Haven and Newhallville, where different department heads and city personnel fan out through a neighborhood, identify various structural and quality-of-life concerns such debris-strewn lawns, unlicensed junkyards, and illegal dwelling units, and then issue citations with the hope of improving public safety and bringing more properties, and property owners, up to city code.

Contreras received three citations from the city’s Building Department for illegally converting a garage into an auto body shop, illegally converting a residential space into an office, and failing to follow the conditions of a special exception he received for his used car dealership.

Now, he said, he’s considering moving his family and his business down to Florida.

“I want to spend money here,” he said about New Haven. “I don’t want to go no place.”

But, he said, if he, his lawyer, and city officials can’t make things work for his business on Farren Avenue, then he may just have to pick up and leave.

“We’re working with him right now,” city Building Official Jim Turcio said about Contreras. “He hasn’t followed though with what he was approved for. We’re working with him.”

Code Violations

On July 19, city Assistant Building Inspector James Eggert visited Contreras’ auto body shop, Anthony’s Auto Sales LLC, at 136 Farren Ave. According to city land records, he found a multiplicity of city code violations at both 136 Farren and at Contreras’s adjacent properties at 126 Farren and 140 Farren.

One July 23 notice sent from the Building Department to Contreras indicates that Eggert found a garage illegally converted into an auto body facility without the required permits or approvals at 126 Farren.

“Secondly,” the notice reads, “exhaust fans are venting contaminants into the surrounding neighborhood endangering public safety and welfare. Finally, electrical work has been conducted in an unapproved manner such that electrical power for the garage has been illegally fed from the adjoining property.” The notice orders Contreras to immediately cease use of the 126 Farren facility as an auto body shop, and pull the necessary permits with the Building Department.

A second July 23 notice from the Building Department calls out Contreras for illegally converting a room in his 140 Farren home into a commercial office space without the required permits.

A third Building Department notice, this one hand-delivered on Aug. 3, indicates that city Zoning Officer Laurie Lopez found that Contreras was operating a used car lot, body shop, automotive storage, and junkyard at 136 Farren without the appropriate approvals.

The notice references a special exception that Contreras received from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) on June 14, 2017 that permitted him to run a used car dealership where a maximum of five vehicles for sale are kept on the premises at one time in a BA (Business) zone. That special exception, however, came with the following conditions:

• Contreras had to limit the number of used cars for sale on premises to five at a time.
• He had to reduce the number of marked parking spaces in a revised site plan.
• The property could not be used for a for-hire towing service or for the storage of vehicles not being actively repaired or sold on-site.
• A site plan showing site layout, drainage features, parking, landscaping, signage and lighting accompanied by floor plans had to be submitted to and approved by the City Plan Commission.

The notice says that Contreras’s permission from the BZA will become null and void one year after the effective date of the decision if the granted relief is not recorded in the city land records within 120 days of the date of publication of BZA’s special exception. It will also become null and void if Contreras does not pull the necessary construction permits and if construction is not “diligently pursued.”

“As of the last inspection,” the notice reads, “conditions set forth in your approvals have not been met nor have all approvals been recorded within 120 days of the date of publication of approval.”

The notice also reads that the July 19 inspection revealed a number of unregistered vehicles and other auto repair equipment at 136 Farren, therefore rendering the property an unlicensed junkyard: or a property where “materials that are used, salvaged, scrapped, or reclaimed but are capable of being reused in some form” are stored or sold.

Turcio said the building officials found 85 cars, one motorcycle, and one tow truck on Contreras’s properties when they visited on July 19.

“And he’s only allowed five cars for sale, his employees’ cars, and whatever he’s working on,” Turcio noted.

“They Making Me Sick”

In an interview at his house-turned-office at 140 Farren, Contreras said he has been working with the city for nearly three years in trying to get the necessary permits, site plans, and approvals to run his auto body repair shop and used car dealership.

“Three years they give me a hard time,” he said. Pointing to a box filled with ten rolled up site plans, he said that every time he follows one city order, he hears back from a city official that he needs to change something else.

“They making me sick,” he said.

A native of Puebla, Mexico, Contreras moved to New Haven when he was 15. He has now spent more of his life in this city than in his birth country. He said he has a wife, four children, a business, and five different properties in the city: the three on Farren Avenue, one on Russell Street, and one on Rosette Street. He said he pays around $14,000 each year in property taxes to the city.

He called his Farren Avenue business a boon for both the residents he employs and for the nearby corner store that sees an uptick in business whenever his customers drop off a car for repair or his employees clock out for a lunch break.

“They raised taxes; we didn’t complain,” he said about the recent 11 percent city property tax hike. He said he wants to make money in New Haven and then invest that money back into this community.

As for the code violations, he said he struggles to understand why the city scrutinizes every change he would like to make to improve his business.

He said the conversion of 140 Farren into an office is only temporary, until he can move the office into one of the lower-ceilinged bays in his garage at 136 Farren. But he can’t do that, he said, until he finishes building an additional two bays in the back of 136 Farren, which he hopes to equip with at least two more lifts, allowing him to store and repair cars inside the garage. He currently only has one lift in one bay of his 136 Farren garage.

On July 19, 2017, then City Plan Director Karen Gilvarg signed off on Contreras’s site plan application for expanding his auto body shop at 136 Farren by adding new car repair bays to the rear of the building. That site plan also included the construction of a new 1,100 square-foot tire and auto parts retail store at 126 Farren, which Contreras also owns. Turcio also signed off on that approved site plan application on June 21, 2017.

Contreras saod he hasn’t been able to move as quickly as he would have liked on the construction of the rear garage bays because of the expense of the operation, and the limited money he makes from only being able to sell five used cars at a time.

Thomas Breen photo“Give me more cars for sale,” he said in response to what he would like the city to do. “The more cars I sell, the more money I get. The more cars I sell, the more money to the city.”

He said his site can likely fit 40 used cars for sale, instead of just five. He said before the city cracked down on the five car-maximum, he was selling three cars a week. Now, he says, he sells two a month. He said he used to have six people working for him. Now he only has two.

“I feel discrimination to me,” he said, arguing that the city should be doing everything it can to ensure his business thrives.

He took off his baseball hat and showed a patch of prematurely graying hairs. He said his hair has started going white with all the stress from dealing with the city.

As for running electrical power from his garage at 136 Farren to a storage space at 126 Farren, Contreras argued, he said he should be able to share electricity between the two locations because he owns both properties. He said he hired an electrician from UI to come and do the work, and that he got the necessary sign off from the city’s building department to have the 136 Farren feeder connected to the 126 Farren garage back in March 2017. But now, he said, the city says the electrical work is not permitted. He said the city cut his power for two weeks, and only restored it on Friday.

“People who eat rice and beans, people who eat steak, we everybody all the same,” he said. He said he wants to continue to live and work in New Haven, and continue contributing to the economy of Farren Avenue.

But, he said, his wife has family in Florida, and he and his family may just move down there and try to start a new business if he can’t get things to work in New Haven. He said he’s hired Branford lawyer Ray Lemley to help figure out exactly what permits he needs, which city codes he is in violation of, and how he can make his Farren Avenue properties square with the city.

City Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson said he is assigning someone on his team to work with Contreras and other Farren Avenue business owners to ensure that they know what they need to do to be up to code and to be able to keep their operations in the city. He said the Harp administration’s stepped-up efforts to enforce city codes is part of a “broken-windows” strategy to promote clean and safe neighborhoods.

Rotting Porches And Dilapidated Garages

The Building Department and LCI also issued code violation notices to nine other Annex property owners for a variety of building code violations discovered during the July sweep. Many of those violations involved rotting porches and dilapidated garages.

The Building Department sent a July 18 notice to Laurence V. Busillo at 117 Farren Ave. about unsafe and deteriorated support members on his front porch.

It sent a July 20 notice to Javier Martinez about rotting front porch headers, columns and framing at 111 Farren Ave.

At Robert Miller’s property at 176 Fairmont Ave., the department found a collapsed rear accessory structure and a front porch deemed unsafe, and that was being repaired without the required permits.

At 99 Pardee St., the department cited Mushka and Menachem Levitin for the property’s collapsed rear garage. It found two more deteriorated garages behind Frank Suraci’s property at 300 Quinnipiac Ace and behind Johana Rodriguez’s property at 192 Quinnipiac Ave.

At 253 Quinnipiac Ave., LCI cited property owners Erick and Floria Angulo for illegally turning their basement into a rental unit.

“The basement dwelling unit is illegal and presents a serious hazard to the health and safety of the occupants,” LCI’s July 26 notice reads.

On Aug. 3, the Building Department issued a notice to Guillermina Luna for running an illegal autobody shop at 120 Farren Ave.

And at 97 Fairmont Ave., the Building Department cited Margaret Ottenbreit for rotted front porch headers and frames in front of two of the building’s three entrances.

The department also cited Ottenbreit for having exposed electrical wires in front of one of those unit entrances. Ottenbreit’s property manager, who identified himself only as Chris, said the wires were not electrical, but just some metal chords that must have gotten caught in the porch’s frame as the last tenants were moving out.

He pulled the cord down from the porch frame and held it in his fist to show that it wasn’t electrical. He also said that he plans on tearing down all three rotted porches at the property, and then reinstalling them within 30 days to meet city code.

On Monday, Turcio said he hadn’t yet heard anything from the property owner or manager about their plans to tear down and reinstall the porches. He said he hopes they pull the necessary construction permits before they begin the work.

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posted by: mmrmike1 on August 9, 2018  2:25pm

So exactly how does his dream being affected by the city? He doesn’t follow the rules and now he wants to cry. His dream has turned into a nightmare for the rest of the neighborhood. So clean up your mess and go to Florida.

posted by: NHPLEB on August 9, 2018  6:03pm

There are rules/laws/codes.  Farren Ave is struggling and this type of activity and disregard for codes and law does not help.  If Contreras and all the property owners can’t maintain the homes,  they should sell them and go elsewhere.  Every dump downgrades the whole neighborhood.

I wish I had a dollar for every person who complains and threatens to leave the city.  Please—do us all a favor and get going.
Kudos to the Building Code/Housing Code/ LCI/ Health Dept for all they do to make and keep NH beautiful!

posted by: Mikelive on August 10, 2018  7:36am

LCI needed some easier targets, seems like they found them. Cherry pick the local hard working folks and forget all of those absentee landlords who do nothing for NHV.

posted by: NHPLEB on August 10, 2018  8:03am

@Mikelive:  that is a very good point you make!  The Jungle was rotting and amoldering for 40 years and the Housing/Building/Health Dept missed it.  Small targets are indeed easier and they don’t fight back because they don’t have deep pockets and influence.  However,  every little bit still helps to clean up the city so I have to support the action,  though they should do more.

posted by: Dennis Serf on August 10, 2018  11:07am

Jim Turcio and the building department do great work, and unlike many of the other City departments, you never hear them complaining about working conditions or resources. The person profiled in this article needs to follow the zoning rules and building codes.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on August 10, 2018  3:05pm

I appreciate the determination of Mr. Contreras to grow a business - it must take an enormous amount of hard-work and dedication to do so. In my opinion, home offices for commercial purposes should be allowed greater freedom to exist in residential districts as an accessory commercial use. Same goes for basement apartments - they should be allowed as accessory dwelling uses in large parts of the city’s residential districts.

While there is much to admire about local landlords and business owners who building basement apartments and growing their businesses, it is also important to follow existing building codes and land use regulations to ensure that the work is being done properly, safely, and without negatively impacting neighbors. It is also important to advocate for updating building and zoning codes so that they do not overly restrict local residents from starting businesses and benefiting from economic opportunity. It’s a difficult balancing act between encouraging entrepreneurial and promoting health and safety. I tend to believe that our existing building codes and land use regulations are overly restrictive today, but the solution cannot be to ignore those existing regulations.

I wish Mr. Contreras luck and hope that he is able to work something out with the City for his benefit, the benefit of his neighbors, and the benefit of the City as a whole.

posted by: JCFremont on August 11, 2018  11:05am

The current administration in Washington DC campaigned and is following through with lessening regulations with the philosophy that it will allow businesses to grow and imporve the economy. I’m thinking many New Haveners are just part of the outrage they have been feeling since November ‘16. For those who think The City should lessen, or look the other way, their regulations so Mr. Contreras and other similar business can grow and improve the economy, I ask what’s the difference?

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on August 12, 2018  12:59pm

You may want to check out some resources that discuss the connection between exclusionary and restrictive local land use regulations and housing affordability, business start-ups, and equity. Here are a few:
Under the Obama administration, there was a push to encourage more multifamily zoning in places that traditionally used large lot single-family zoning as an exclusionary tool. Under the Trump administration, similar policies have been pursued but from the perspective of empowering real estate speculation, investment, and development.
I see value in discussing the impact of exclusionary and restrictive building and land use regulations on the built environment in general and on issues of housing affordability, economic opportunity, and urban form specifically. I sympathize with the stated concerns of the Obama administration in regards to exclusionary zoning and segregation. I also sympathize with the Trump administrations stated concerns about the negative impact of overly restrictive building and land use regulations on development costs and therefore housing prices for consumers. Where I depart from these approaches is with the assumption that developers are the ones who should benefit from regulatory reform. In my opinion, the focus should not be on how to empower developers to build in lower density residential neighborhoods. The focus should be on how to empower existing residents of lower density neighborhoods to participate in, drive, and benefit from economic opportunity. From my point of view, the people hurt most by overly restrictive land use regulations are the existing residents of places with restrictive regulations. I’m interested in accessory uses because they are valuable to homeowners, but not to developers.