Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Stockbridge Saga - Part 4B

(This is a follow up to a series of posts I wrote over a year ago about my friend Jeff and his battles with the Town of Stockbridge, MA, over his garage. The posts were titled "The Stockbridge Saga" and broken down into 3 parts... Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. The first post in this series, Part 4A, can be found here.)

I showed up at the ZBA hearing Thursday night just to listen. I said my piece in support of Jeff at the earlier hearing and, since I wasn't a resident of Stockbridge or a neighbor, there was nothing more I could add. Before the meeting was called to order a man came up to me and asked me where in Jeff's neighborhood I lived. I said I didn't live in the neighborhood and I was there as an "automotive writer". Maybe calling myself an "automotive writer" was a bit of an exaggeration, but my purpose Thursday night was to gain material for this blog and nothing more. We shook hands just as the meeting was being called to order.

In just about every town in America, the folks who sit on the Zoning Board of Appeals are intelligent, well meaning people. They come from all walks of life. They are not necessarily well versed in law or procedures. The Stockbridge ZBA is no exception. There was some discussion between the board members and the town's attorney as to how the meeting would proceed prior to it being called to order.

The town's attorney was the first to speak. He explained the settlement / agreement to the ZBA members. Jeff's attorney (Jeff did not attend the hearing) then stood up and said that Jeff approved the agreement.

In a nutshell, the agreement states this:

Jeff is allowed to work on 4 cars not belonging to him per month. Jeff cannot get paid for doing any work on any car in his garage. He cannot sell or be reimbursed for parts for any cars. Nothing can be brought to his garage on a flatbed or tow truck. He can only work on other peoples cars between 9AM and 6PM. He can't keep more than one car not belonging to him in the garage overnight. He can't store any car not belonging to him outside. He has to keep the noise within the limits allowed by the town's zoning bylaws.

The only thing that I see that changes what Jeff has been doing all along is the reimbursement for parts. I own a BMW. Jeff lives close to a BMW dealership. I don't. Often, when I'd tell him what I wanted to do on my car, he'd ask if I wanted him to pick up the parts. I usually said yes. He'd give me the parts and the invoice and I'd pay him what he paid for the parts. He didn't make money on the parts... So, whatever. Fine. From now on I'll drive a half-an-hour out of my way to pick up the parts and bring them with me. It's kind of silly, really.

Before taking their vote, the ZBA asked if any of the public had anything to say.
Two people did. It turns out the man who approached me prior to the meeting being called to order was one of the neighbors who started this whole mess against Jeff. He was brief. He thanked the ZBA for having taken the time to hold the hearings and then started asking about how the agreement would be enforced. While we are most definitely on different sides of this issue, I was glad he asked, as I was curious about this, too. Really, it turns out that it won't be easy. The neighbors don't have the right to just walk on to Jeff's property and see what he's doing. That would be trespassing. This man realized this and asked, several times, "Well, since we can't see what's going on at (Jeff's), how will we know if he's in compliance?" Let me repeat that: "Well, since we can't see what's going on at (Jeff's), how will we know if he's in compliance?" My question: If you can't see what's going on, why do you care?

The second person was a neighbor, too. He very obviously hated Jeff and his family. Big time. This was personal to him. He was all about the punishment. He asked several times what the fines would be for non-compliance. He wanted to see Jeff post a bond. (He very obviously thinks Jeff is going to violate the agreement. Most lawyers I spoke to - including Jeff's - felt that if Jeff took this matter to its conclusion in Land Court, he would have won. Meaning that Jeff would be to free to do what he was doing prior to the cease and desist order. Jeff knew that, so why would he agree to this "settlement" if he wasn't going to comply with it?) Whether or not Jeff stays in compliance with the agreement mattered little to him. He wanted Jeff and his family punished just for breathing the same air he does. I've never been arrested, but if I ever am, I don't want this man on my jury. He said his piece and, apparently not getting the answers he wanted, stormed out before the ZBA took its vote.

The ZBA voted unanimously to accept the settlement.

This is not a perfect settlement by any stretch of the imagination. If I visit Jeff and notice one of my tires is a little low on air, would using his air-hose constitute working on a car? More importantly, how will this be enforced? The ZBA told neighbor #2 that if he "suspected" the agreement was being violated, he needed to call the building inspector, who would then have to visit Jeff's garage and see the "violation". Given that, as neighbor #1 said, you can't see what's going on in the garage, will these neighbors, who have obviously had no problem harassing Jeff in the past, call the building inspector each and every time they see lights on in the garage? I suspect they will. And, since the building inspector can't drop everything he's doing and race over to Jeff's each time a neighbor calls, will the suspected violation then become a case of he-said / she-said? If so, does the building inspector become the judge and jury? Can he be impartial, fair and reasonable? These are all questions that have no answers yet.

I left the hearing room a little later than most. I wanted to hear if the ZBA members had any discussion among themselves after the hearing was adjourned. They didn't. As I walked to my car the man who asked me who I was at the beginning of the meeting approached me. He read the original "Stockbridge Saga" posts and was not thrilled about the way I portrayed him. While I didn't single out any neighbor in particular in that post, I did portray the whole group in an unflattering light. I've re-read what I wrote and stand by every word of it.

I explained to him that I am not against zoning laws, but I felt that he was wrong in this case. Very wrong. He told me that I didn't really know what was going on. I believe I do. I've known Jeff for many, many years. He told me that the tow-truck operator who testified at the first hearing lied and that privately he told him that he delivered "many, many wrecks" to Jeff's garage. I found that very hard to believe. First of all, if that was the case, why would he lie in front of the ZBA? Secondly, Jeff hates working on wrecks. He won't do it. Period. We have had a ton of debates about this. I like bringing wrecks back to life. Jeff absolutely does not.

I suspect this is a case of people who don't understand the "automobile culture" looking at an old car - any old car, no matter how nice it is - and considering it a "wreck". They don't understand why we drive old Alfas, BMWs, Volvos, MGs, etc. - cars that need maintenance on a regular basis - instead of new Hondas. (The answer is, we drive them because they're not new Hondas. They're cars, not appliances.) We spoke for another 5 or 10 minutes. It was all very civil. He kept disparaging Jeff, I kept defending him. Neither of us will ever change our opinions.

Just before we parted ways, he asked me one more question. "Tell me", he said, "Would you want to live next to Jeff?". I just looked at him and replied, "You bet I would".

*Picture credit - Jeff's garage was featured in Hemmings Motor News in November, 2010. The top picture is from that article and was taken by David LaChance. You can find the entire article here.


Harv said...

So glad I can get some air in the tires on my wreck when I'm in town.

Tony R said...

I thank God that I don't have neighbors like Jeff. I hope he and his family can put this sordid mess behind them.

1AJeremy said...

Although I don't agree with the outcome and think that the neighbors should mind their business, I'm glad to hear that it is finally wrapped up (we think).

I guess this is why they say that good fences make good neighbors. ;)

Jon said...

Thanks for the update!

mad_science said... my experience people out the ends of dirt roads in semi-rural settings are there specifically to do things like have near-commercial-grade garages or kitchens or have "too many friends" over all too often.

The super-cranky types tend to be in master-planned gated communities, where you pay hundreds a month for the privledge of being berated about leaving your garage door open or hose uncoiled on the front lawn.

In the end, the onus is on the neighbors to attempt to enforce it. If they decide he's violated their personal interpretation of the law, they'll start making calls.

Luckily, it'll stay at a PITA level unless they can specifically document violations of the settlement, which they can't, because they can't even see his garage.

As you mentioned, I suspect these are people who can't differentiate between a guy working on awesome high-end cars in a clean garage away from their sightlines and a yard full of Camaros on cinder blocks.

Anonymous said...

Some folks have hate in their hearts. They live in constant fear and believe that evil lurks around every corner. And that everything they can't control will rise up and destroy them. They love AM radio.

It's sad that they cause so many problems for decent people, but there isn't much you can do about it. It's a type of mental illness, and you will never reason with them.