Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Stockbridge Saga, Part 3 - We're Pretty Certain You're Not Doing Anything Wrong, But Stop Doing It Anyway...

On Tuesday night the Stockbridge ZBA held its 4th hearing regarding this matter.

For those of us who came to support Jeff it was a bit like a reunion. Like I said in the earlier post, this is not a "club" in the traditional sense of the word. Rick was there. The last time I saw him was 2007 at Lime Rock. I had no idea he had stopped racing. Tony was there. We exchange an occasional e-mail, but I can't remember when the last time I saw him was. Chris, a newer "club member", was there. He has an incredible and eclectic collection of cars (Everything from Bugattis - yes, that's plural - to an Amilcar, a Fiat Topolino, a Talbo - if you haven't seen a Talbo, check out this 1994 Car & Driver article - and many others). There were a few people there that I had never met. Prior to the hearing coming to order we stood around and talked about cars. No real surprise there.

The opposing side were a dour bunch. They didn't talk much to each other and they certainly didn't talk to us. I found myself standing next to one of them in the hallway. I said something about how nice it was being in an air conditioned building after being outside in the heat. He didn't say a word back.

The meeting was called to order. The first person to speak was the local tow truck operator. This was interesting because he didn't want to be there. For all intents and purposes, he was subpoenaed by the ZBA. He was asked how many times each year he delivered or picked up cars in the neighborhood. "40 or 50 times", was his response. How many times did he go to Jeff's house to deliver or pick up cars? "4 or 5", he answered. Did he remember which cars they were? "Yes, twice it was Jeff's dad's car, twice it was one of Jeff's". Did he know of anyone who had their car brought there for repair? "No", was his answer. I have to give this guy a lot of credit. He most likely lost 35 or 45 calls a year from that neighborhood by testifying truthfully.

The opposition stood up and said their pieces. One person had supposedly hired a private investigator to look into what cars were coming and going from Jeff's property. The PI allegedly found a car belonging to a man from Albany, NY. In a spoof call, he supposedly had gotten that person to say that Jeff was working on his car and was a "very good mechanic". I use the words "allegedly" and "supposedly" because the report was dated 2004. Jeff's garage didn't go up until 2005. One neighbor wanted to see Jeff's tax returns, to see how he derived his income. I don't know about you, but there is no way in hell I would show my tax returns to my neighbors (and I like mine). I couldn't believe the ballsiness of the request. One by one they droned on about people and cars visiting Jeff. One neighbor admitted that he can't see Jeff's property from his house (I don't think any of them can, as the neighborhood is very wooded.) It had turned from "Jeff works on cars at his house" to "Jeff has too many people visiting him". Too many people drive down the road to see Jeff. Too many of Jeff's friends drive "high end" (their words) cars. Something must be going on.

Being a friend and a frequent visitor, I can say with all honesty that virtually everything they said was false. Period.

We, the "club members" there to support Jeff, got up and said our pieces. I opened by saying that I had known Jeff for 25 years. I mentioned that I had aged better than he had. The ZBA members chuckled, the "club members" laughed. The opposition sat stone faced. One by one we all said essentially the same thing: Yes, we visit Jeff. Yes, we sometimes do some minor work on our cars there. Yes, Jeff often helps us. No, we never paid him a dime.

Hook me up to a polygraph machine and ask me the same questions and I'd pass the test with flying colors. (Including the part about having aged better than Jeff.)

After all the testimony, the ZBA members spoke. They all agreed that there was no reason to believe that Jeff was running a repair shop from his house. (In fact, they were the ones who called us a "club". I stole their terminology.) They all agreed that Jeff's garage was an impressive, clean, well designed building that violated no zoning laws and was well within code. They even agreed that it seemed to have been built with the neighborhood in mind. They all seemed to agree that Jeff was a good guy.

Then they took their vote. I figured it was a slam dunk in Jeff's favor.

Wrong-o.

While they agreed that everything was on the up and up, they seemed to feel, like the neighbors, that Jeff has too many friends with nice cars. We, the half dozen or so "club members", were too many acquaintances for Jeff to have. By a vote of 4 to 1, the ZBA upheld the cease and desist order. If anyone stops by Jeff's house, they had better not pop the hood on their car for any reason. (Including a jump start, which could be a problem for those with British cars, I suppose.) The city will impose a hefty fine on Jeff if we do.

Now, there are probably some of you who are thinking, "Welcome to the real world, Dave. A world where car repair isn't done for free and working on your own car means using a creeper and a set of jack stands." I fully understand that. I'm lucky to have a friend like Jeff. If all this means that I pay for my car repairs or do them at my own house without a lift, so be it. That's all that will change. I'll still talk to Jeff 2 or 3 times a week and we'll still talk about cars. (We may talk about his neighbors a bit now, too.) Instead of a call or an e-mail, I may drive my "high end" car (a 15 year old BMW - Which we will not be working on at Jeff's house) to see him, just to piss off the neighbors. ("Damn it, Jeff and his friend are sitting on the deck and they're doing... nothing. Doesn't that violate some law?")

The point of this is not me and my life. The point of this is what a person is allowed to do on his own property. I'm not anarchist or a Libertarian. I believe that there should be certain limits on what can and cannot be done on your property. (I mean, really, would you want your next door neighbor to open a rendering plant next to your house?) And in the grand scheme of things, with the the Gulf of Mexico beginning to look like the Gulf of Texaco (Yeah, I know, wrong oil company, but it sort of rhymes) and everything else that's going on in the world, this is extremely minor. Still, it needs to be pointed out.

There's a little irony here. I remember a call I got a few years ago from Jeff. He was in Ohio visiting John (the BMW 2002 / Volvo fan mentioned in Part 1 of this rambling post). He lost one of the fuel pumps on his 750iL just west of Buffalo, but managed to drive the car the rest of the way on 6 cylinders since it was a dual redundant system. Two days later he was able to fix the car in John's driveway - outside in the cold and the snow - and drive it home on all 12 cylinders. Today, if it was John visiting Jeff in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the same thing happened, John would not be able to fix his car in Jeff's driveway or in his warm garage. (I should also mention here that when Jeff told me on the phone that his car had a "dual redundant fuel system", I had no clear idea of what he meant. His response was, "Stop by the house after I get back and I'll show you." It's not real clear if he'd be allowed to do that today.)

Jeff has chosen to take this to court. As far as I can tell, no one has taken a case like this to court before. This could very well be a test case. If this decision is upheld, it's possible you'll see towns trying to pass ordinances and/or bylaws saying that you can't fix or restore your own car in your home garage, let alone help a friend or family member.

Again, I'm not a conspirasist or an anti-government, anti-zoning law type of person. In this case though, the town of Stockbridge took things too far. The thought of what the outcome of this case could have on car geeks, collectors, hobbyists, amateur racers, etc., is chilling.

I'll keep you posted.(If anyone reading this is involved in the media and wants to speak to Jeff about this, shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you in touch with him.)

14 comments:

Quantum Joe said...

Alfas, Volvos, BMWs, Ferraris and BUGATTIS drive down the road and they're complaining?????

Dave said...

I guess the Alfas blow smoke. The Volvos are too safe so in the event of a collision the locals might come off second best. The BMWs are too yuppy. As for the Ferraris and Bugattis, well they are just jealous. Plain and simple!

Just A Car Geek said...

I'm glad you guys brought up the road that Jeff lives on. I had this in the original post, but edited it out. (If I had left everything in, this series would have went on until next Memorial Day!)

The road in front of Jeff's house is a narrow, dirt road. Driving any car at a speed of more than 20 MPH would be insane.

The neighbors tried to make it sound like there were cars speeding up and down the road.

I highly doubt that and if it's true, they need to check with their friends, as I know none of us would risk the suspension on our cars - or an unintended trip into the woods - by driving fast on Jeff's road.

Dave

Jon said...

Let's talk about zoning and Stockbridge.

Historically speaking, public health and safety have provided the strongest basis for zoning laws. Height, setback, and lot size requirements were aimed at ensuring that adequate light and air would enter urban dwellings. Minimum floor space standards were designed to prevent the unhealthy overcrowding of dwellings. Uses were separated in order to alleviate noise, odors, and similar effects in residential areas, and to reduce traffic congestion.

On the other hand many have argued that the real impetus behind zoning concerns the preservation of property values. Try comparing the estimated median house value of Stockbridge with that of Turner's Falls, Pittsfield or Orange, Massachusetts.

There is not much online concerning the Stockbridge Zoning Board of Appeals. The most recent document I found is a Town Report indicating only three cases were heard in 2008. This alone is a red flag.

First, the cease and desist order states in part the following: "Given that the principal use of this address is residential, the use of the garage must be consistent with section of 4.8 of the zoning bylaws..." This is followed by the key phrase "....provided that it does not alter the character of the premises nor be detrimental to the neighborhood."

If you are wondering what "detrimental to the neighborhood" means, look no further than section 4.10 PROHIBITED USES. Section 4.10A states "Any use of land, buildings or structures which creates excessive objectionable noise, fumes, odor, dust, electrical interference or undo traffic."

Numerous other sections of the towns zoning bylaws concern restrictions on business or commercial property. The commercial restrictions contained in 4.10 are broader and more detailed. They tack on "smoke, gas, vapor, particulate matter, toxic substances, poisonous fluids or solids, radiation, bacterial or viral agent, excrement, refuse, organic matter, chemicals, cinders, dust, vibration, lighting, glare, noise..." and other criteria.

The same could be said for bylaws under section 6.19 HOME OCCUPATIONS. Talk about vague and overbroad, this section aims to preserve the "character of residential neighborhoods and areas" through ensuring that activities at home based businesses "Provide peace, quiet, and domestic tranquility within all residential neighborhoods or areas, and guarantee to all residents freedom from excessive noise and traffic, nuisance, fire hazard, and other possible effects of commercial uses being conducted in residential areas."

Frankly speaking, any home based business that fits this "peace and freedom" criteria should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Jon said...

The crux of the matter is that characterizing Jeff's hobby as a commercial enterprise would offer the Zoning Board more opportunities to exercise their power.

I can imagine the neighbors went nuts when they found out Jeff had a lift in his garage. I'm sure they could not fathom why anyone would wish to have a lift – UNLESS IT WAS THERE TO GENERATE INCOME. That is why Gladys Kravits asked to see his tax returns. However, having a wine cellar in your basement doesn't mean there is a restaurant upstairs. I'm sure plenty of his abutters have trendy "commercial" kitchen appliances such as those made by Viking et al. A retired couple doesn't need a six burner range.

While abutters are automatically entitled to a presumption of legal standing, I don't see how these neighbors have detailed the basis of their complaint. Normally one would think that they would spell out how the noise, odors, etc. affected their "quality of life." This does not appear to be the case. It appears the abutters simply failed to provide evidence supporting any claims of injury. Where is the substantial evidence? The fact that your house is valued past the $500K mark does not decrease the threshold of tolerability. In addition, I don't think that diminished property values are a covered injury under Chapter 40B.

While there may be a legitimate government interest of fostering a quiet neighborhood, I'm not sure how the cease and desist order squares with this goal. Jeff was ordered "to cease and desist all work (including, without limitation, repair, restoration and refurbishment) on any automobile, other vehicle, or part thereof not owned by a resident of this address."

This is ridiculous. First off, regarding Jeff, why would working on someone else's cars be any different from working on his own cars? In addition, what actually constitutes "repair, restoration and refurbishment" in this context? Is putting air in tires a "repair" as written? Is hosing down a car a "refurbishment" that is actionable? The U.S. Supreme Court has found that a regulation is void for vagueness if it is unclear as to providing notice of what is prohibited or is unclear as to how the regulation is to be applied. A vague law would allow policemen, or town officials to evaluate on an ad hoc and subjective basis. In other words, how would someone unfamiliar with auto mechanics etc. determine when a violation has actually taken place? This presents the dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application.

Jon said...

I would first ask the court to nullify the zoning board’s "arbitrary and capricious" decision.

In addition, there are various Constitutional challenges that could be raised here. Historically speaking, most of these have not worked in the past due to the fact that Courts offer deference to local zoning authorities. However, this case is a bit odd, and given the circumstances, they are worth noting. When a court reviews a zoning ordinance, the standard of review will depend on the nature of the right infringed rather than the actual power exercised. As such, courts usually subject zoning laws to rational basis review, which requires the statute to be "rationally related to a legitimate state interest." As stated above, there very well may be a legitimate government interest of fostering a quiet neighborhood.

On the other hand when a zoning ordinance classifies groups based upon constitutionally protected characteristics or infringes upon constitutional rights, courts will subject the ordinance to a more stringent compelling interest standard.

Take for example, freedom of association. While the ban concerns working on cars, I suspect that the mere presence of the "visitors" forms the basis for the abutter's complaints. The right to freedom of association similarly is an implied right "to join with others to pursue goals independently protected by the First Amendment." The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the rights under freedom of association protect individuals from prosecution or government discrimination for mere membership in a group, even if the group has a stated illegal purpose. Therefore, like-minded people gathering in someone's garage to chat about cars would also receive some protection from the right to freedom of association.

The Equal Protection Clause essentially provides "that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike." It can be argued that most residential zoning ordinances do not restrict residents from having social gatherings of a reasonable number of people at reasonable times of day. However, can a distinction be made between car club gatherings at Jeff's - verses bridge club gatherings at the neighbor's house? Both have the potential to create similar traffic, parking, and noise effects on the neighborhood. Why should Jeff be banned from lifting a wrench when on the other side of town two neighbors are repairing a lawnmower? Both gatherings occur with similarly situated people.

Feel free to toss in the "the right to privacy." The right to privacy must be implicated when it comes to the government evaluating what type of gathering is occurring in someone's home.

On a different subject, no offense Jeff, but I'll bet a caravan of landscaping trucks visit the neighbors on a more frequent basis than some of your "car club" friends.

Those ZERO TURN mowers can be quite noisy.

Hobo said...

Jealosy drives so many things.

Anonymous said...

Planners have run amok in the last twenty years. For evidence, just take a look at a Zoning Book from the '80's and one from the same community, today. It will be three times the size, and you won't be able to understand half of it. The end effect is that you must always get a "variance" to do anything, because nothing fits all of the criteria. This creates a "Permit by Rule" community. What this means is, that you must get every use/project approved by the Zoning Board before you can do anything. This give them way too much power, but they love it.
In my opinion, Planners and Zoning Boards can be the biggest economic impediments to development an area can have.

afa said...

This is just unbelievable. It's truly a shame that there are people in this world that have nothing better to do with themselves than complain about neighbors. These people really need to pick-up a hobby, they have way too much time on their hands.

What's an even greater shame is that the Board didn't clear up this nonsense. It really makes you wonder about the justice system in our country.

If you would have swapped the geographic location of this incident from "New England" to "Central Italy", this incident would have never happened. In fact, the neighbors probably would have walked down the street and been a part of the "club"!

Mark said...

The system is not a justice system, rather a legal system. That makes it easier for bureaucrats like these to exhibit their power in such unreasonable manners until someone actually uses the system to stop them and their busy body cronies from using force to stop a citizen from exercising their rights under the constitution to pursue happiness.

Quantum Joe said...

Any updates on this yet?

speedmerchant said...

I read this article in my Hagerty's monthly publication. I am sure this isn't an isolated incident for car lovers around the country. What seems ridiculous is how these towns people would "want" the government invading their everyday lives. Very sad he has to pay for a lawyer to guarantee his rights. I for one would be willing to contribute to a fund to help him. I would also suggest he create a facebook page to engage the younger enthusiasts. Good luck and lets hope better sense prevails.

Axel Caravias said...

Well, Usually this kind of neighbor-envy situation solves itself once you find the skeletons that they have in their closets and gently let them know... Everyone has some kind of non-compliant "thing" in their home.

james barrette said...

Same thing happened to my cousins. Their neighbors took them to the town Zoning board- my cousins won. Their took them to the district court.. and my cousins won... Then the neighbors tried to sue my cousins because somehow having several cars in the front yard was lowering the property value of the neighbors house. My cousins won. Now, my cousins planted 15 foot tall shrubs in front of their property, and the neighbors are selling their house. I hate people like that!!!