The Board of Building Standards and Appeals last week deferred a vote on whether or not to uphold the city’s public nuisance structure designation of two properties located at the southwest corner of Clifton Blvd. and Cook Ave.
After hearing conflicting testimony from both sides in the matter, the Board decided it wanted more time to digest the case file information, which dates back more than 10 years. (see .PDF – large file)
The city’s attempt to use the public nuisance structure law is the result of a frustrating nearly three-year long game of cat-and-mouse between the Division of Housing and Building and the owner of the buildings. If the properties are determined to be a public nuisance, the city will have the authority to abate the problem through either repair or demolition.
William T. Novak, who has owned the two four-unit apartment buildings at 14903 – 14909 Clifton Blvd. for about 20 years, contends that the condition of his properties does not fit the legal definition of a public nuisance structure.
Novak has been found guilty of housing compliance violations several times in Lakewood Municipal Court over the last decade. At a September compliance hearing, Judge Patrick Carroll grew weary while listening to a building inspector describe Novak’s passive attempts to avoid communication with the city. He blasted the property owner, and warned of jail time: “You don’t grasp the seriousness of this.”
Carroll told Novak that one of their prior encounters was a topic of discussion during a lunch he had with Cleveland Municipal Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka. “You’re famous,” he said. “Famous for being a slumlord, but you’re famous.”
In the beginning…
The genesis of the city’s current conflict with Novak is a May 2008 housing inspection that showed exterior code violations. Novak was given additional time to fix the problems because of a family-related hardship. He made some progress, but then skipped a November 2008 housing court appearance, which earned him an arrest warrant.
Many violations remained, and an exterior inspection of the property in late 2009 showed that the buildings were vacant and unsecured. Lakewood Fire Marshal Scott Gilman joined with other city personnel and executed a search warrant signed by Judge Carroll. The buildings were secured, and multiple interior housing code violations were identified.
Novak reestablished contact with city after the raid, but maintained a pattern of avoidance and inaction throughout 2010. Case notations include:
— 3/23/10: Met with contractor on-site to advise. Contractor states owner did not describe scope of work consistent with what the city is requiring. City has asked for an engineering report to set the parameters for the scope of necessary masonry repairs.
— 4/16/10: $500 court fine, case continued to 5/28. Spoke with realtor who indicated the property was shown 10 times but is not in MLS.
Assistant Building Commissioner for Commercial Buildings Robert Apanasewicz summarized the situation for the Board. He said the property has been vacant for at least two years and is in a “constant state of disrepair.” He expressed doubt that Novak would be in compliance by his next court appearance on December 3rd.
Apanasewicz read to the Board an e-mail written by tenant in 2000 that complained about the unsafe state of the building. (see .PDF) Apanasewicz told the Board it was time to stop the owner’s cycle of indifference and neglect. “Today’s the start,” he said, hopeful they would uphold the nuisance designation.
Lead building inspector Timothy McDonough added, “Progress has been very slow and it appears progress only increases when pressure increases from the court.”
Novak’s lawyer maintains that the nuisance has been abated
Sam Zingale, Novak’s young lawyer, portrayed his client as a well-meaning property owner whose fortunes have been dragged down by the economy. He said Novak lived on the premises when he first purchased them, but then moved out of state for an employment opportunity. More recently, he lost his engineering job, and is unable to secure a home loan. Novak is current on his property taxes and has completely paid-off the mortgage. The properties are currently for sale and Novak is prepared to lower the asking price even though he would “take a pretty big hit.”
Zingale disputed the ascertation that the buildings are vacant and pose a threat to public safety. He said Novak and a couple of his friends have been living in one of the buildings for the last nine months and are making repairs. All of the units have heat and about half of them are in good enough condition to rent. “This nuisance has been abated,” Zingale said.
Public comment on the situation
Notably absent from the public comment portion of the meeting was Ward 2 Councilperson Thomas Bullock. Aside from the fact that he lives a little more than a hop, skip and jump away from these properties, he should have been there because the voters chose him to represent their interests on occasions just like this one.
The owner of the building on the southeast corner of Clifton Blvd. and Cook Ave. said he had been “under the thumb” of the city’s building department in the past, and had to make repairs. Ronald Feldner wondered what “stress” his property value would experience as a result of the condition of Novak’s properties.
Masonry expert Dan “Tuckpoint” Turner, who said he wasn’t affiliated with Novak, felt the city was overreacting. “Respectfully, I disagree,” he said of the city’s approach. “This man has done an awful lot of work.” Turner said he didn’t understand the city’s urgency on the issue.
Turner’s remarks raised the hackles of Captains Cove resident Mary Anne Crampton. Speaking as a private citizen and not in her capacity as executive director of LakewoodAlive, she told the Board that Novak has been working the system for years and implored them to uphold the nuisance structure designation. Standing at the podium, Crampton questioned Turner’s residency. As a non-Lakewood resident, she said, he had “an enormous amount of audacity” to criticize the city’s actions.
Novak’s sister, who had been listening in the audience with growing displeasure, defended her brother. “He has paid into this building for 20 years,” she said. “What right do you have to take it from him?” She claimed that he has six people working around the clock to make building repairs that take “hours and hours.” Novak said her brother spent six months caring for their dying mother, and had also lost his job. She turned towards Crampton and said, “So, you wanna write a check? It’s hard work.”
Speaking on his own behalf, William T. Novak said, “I want to be in compliance. I want to fix the buildings.”
To be continued….on December 9th
Public nuisance structure appeals are frequently open and shut cases. The city makes a claim and then provides clear evidence to the board showing the existence of the conditions or defects outlined in the nuisance notice.
In this instance, the city’s nuisance notice asserted the following claims:
“Due to repeated inspections of the property and/or court appearances, whereby the owner failed, neglected, or refused to comply with previous Correction Notice(s) and shutoff orders of utilities due to non-payment, this structure has been deemed unsafe to occupy, is vacant; constitutes a fire and safety hazard by reason of inadequate maintenance and dilapidation”
The evidence Novak’s lawyer presented contradicted a few of the city’s claims and planted seeds of doubt in the minds of some Board members. They felt the city’s narrative wasn’t supported by clear and overwhelming evidence, and deferred a vote on the situation until their next meeting on December 9th in order to examine the data more closely.
Two houses to be demolished on W. 117th
Residential structures on W. 117th in Lakewood are gradually being wiped off of the map. The city demolished one blighted apartment building earlier this year, and has plans to topple another one.
Now, Berea-based Self Service Mini Storage is getting in on the act. The company received permission from the Board to level the two houses they own at 1520 and 1528 W. 117th. The company also owns the vacant parcel between the houses, as well as the Lube Stop property at 1474 W. 117th St. There are no immediate plans to develop the empty parceles.
Dru Siley, assistant planning director, called the homes “obsolete” and said their demolition “makes sense” for future commercial development. “It’s no longer a residential corridor,” he said.
‘Eyesore’ no more: Put-In-Bay Lakewood to get a new name and a new look
The owner of the building that houses Put-In-Bay Lakewood told the Board that he’s not proud of his property’s appearance. “As you know, it’s a giant eyesore,” he said.
He submitted plans to remove the hideous blue awning, restore the brick facade, and increase the length of the front windows along 18206 Detroit Ave. The business will also be renamed the Avenue Tap House.
The board approved his design. Siley said the plans would change “an ugly building to a pretty attractive storefront.”
Renovation of car wash building facade halted
Bee Clean Car Wash, located a little to the west of Put-in-Bay Lakewood at the corner of Riverside Dr. and Detroit Ave., was caught making changes to their building façade with getting the proper permit.
The car wash has been in existence at the same location since 1957. Kurt Kocias took the business over this year and wanted to improve the brick facade of the building’s entrance, which was damaged by years of exposure to cleaning chemicals.
He used stone and stained wood and trim materials to cover-up much of the entrance façade when he received word from the city that he had to stop the project. He was required to get a permit and design approval from the Board before proceeding further.
The Board frowned upon his use of materials. In general, it doesn’t approve plans where inferior materials – wood, in this instance –are used to cover up superior materials, like brick.
The Board deferred approval until Kocias submits his design plans for the rest of the building facade.
No night time security gate at Rent-A-Center
The champions of the rent-to-own concept were told by the Board to get rid of their interior security gate. “It sends the wrong message,” said one board member. “It’s just not aesthetically pleasing,” said another board member.
To prevent the occurrence of smash-and-grabs, Director of the Division of Building and Housing Jeff Ashby recommended the use of Armorguard, a window film product that prevents glass from shattering.
Rent-A-Center representative Angel Agosto politely accepted the Board’s decision, but was a little miffed because the business directly next store, Gamestop, also has a nighttime security gate. A city representative told Agosto they were aware of the situation, and were working to correct it.
LakewoodAlive Executive Director Mary Anne Crampton addressed the Board briefly and said, “Thank you for your reaction on this.” She said a lot of effort has been put forth over the last five years to revitalize the city’s central business district, and it was good to those positive efforts reinforced.
Melt receives permission for large sign
Melt Bar and Grilled owner Matt Fish asked for board approval of a large blade-style sign that would be clearly visible to travelers on Detroit Ave. Fish said his business has become a destination restaurant, and he wants to make it easier for out-of-towners to find his food. He said the eight-foot tall Melt sign at his Cleveland Heights location has gotten a positive reception.
The Board was concerned about the proposed sign’s size. “It seems so big,” one Board member said of the 8-½ foot by 8-foot sign design. The primary issue was its close proximity to the public right-of-way on the sidewalk and street.
The Board approved the design with the understanding that it be scaled down 20-percent to 30-percent in size to avoid possible safety hazards in the public right-of-way.
Naturopathic physician newest tenant in former funeral home complex
The popular holistic pet store Furry Nation will soon have a naturopathic medicine practitioner as a neighbor at the former Busch-Saxton-Parker-Daniels Family Funeral Home at 15800 Detroit Ave.
The Board gave conditional approval for signage submitted by Great Lakes Natural Medicine. Their Web site indicates they will open in December.
It was reported in this space late last year that The Unlimited Group (UG), which owns the complex, was going to open a café in the building. Those plans have changed.
UG underwent a corporate reorganization and management decided it was unwise to open a restaurant in a town already saturated with dining establishments. Instead, UG wanted to open a tutoring center. UG is part of a company that specializes in educating “at-risk” public school students.
UG received a new parking space variance for the tutoring center in April and indicated it would be open in time for the fall school season. The goal was to open where Furry Nation is currently located, and move the pet store one space to the east.
Those plans haven’t yet been realized.
Maple Cliff Dr. homeowners finally get front steps
Most Lakewood homeowners have at least a vague notion that they need to get a building permit whenever they monkey with their house. All qualified contractors know exactly what occasions require a permit, and when they’re unsure, they don’t hesitate to phone the city and get a clarification.
Between the two – the vaguely aware homeowner and the qualified contractor – there should be enough knowledge to avoid prolonged and painful home renovation disappointments.
The system failed one Maple Cliff Dr couple. Their contractor ripped out their home’s front stoop and landscaping with the intent to rebuild them and add a small courtyard pad of brick pavers. Before any progress could be achieved though, the city shut the project down because no one pulled a building permit.
Between September and November, the Maple Cliff Dr. homeowners appeared before the Board on five separate occasions in an effort to secure approval for their renovation plan. Their contractor accompanied them on the first visit, but was absent from the others. Usually, only one or two trips are required.
Essentially, the Board didn’t like the material they were using and felt the design was not in harmony the neighborhood. The Board indicated to the homeowners what would be permissible, but their message was not clearly received.
The Maple Cliff Dr. residents did eventually receive board approval, but not before enduring a lot of stress and frustration. The moral to the story: If you’re going to tinker with your house, make sure you first have a building permit.