Where's the City?
Seven years ago a Superior Court judge ruled that a property owner on the East Side of Providence could not use a vacant lot for parking - after neighbors complained it was a safety hazard for cars to get in and out near a busy highway on-ramp. But the owners have defied that order for years, allowing cars to regularly use the lot - despite repeated violation notices from the city. This week Jim Hummel asks: why isn't Providence cracking down?
As one of the primary roads in and out of the city's East Side, Gano Street sees thousands of cars every day using this ramp to Route 195. It is because of that heavy traffic the Fox Point Neighborhood Association objected a decade ago when the owner of this residential lot right next to the on-ramp began using it as a parking lot.
Schnepel: ``W had two board members who lived in the area.''
Daisy Schnepel, a founding member and past president of the association, said the group believed strongly that having a parking lot not only violated the city's zoning laws, but was dangerous for cars getting in and out of the property.
So the association took the owners, Steven Puleo and Michelle Boutin to court, where a judge agreed the zoning board had been wrong to grant a variance allowing the lot in an R-2 residential zone, something prohibited in the city's zoning ordinances.
Schnepel: ``The relocation of the highway was going to impact the neighborhood and we wanted to make sure that the neighborhood wasn't going to be ruined by the relocation.''
Schnepel said the parking lot was one of several issues the association took on at the time - during the early stages of the Route 195 relocation project - including a proposed drive through window at this Dunkin Donuts just up Gano Street.
Schnepel: ``We felt very strongly that the Gano Street exit and also the Wickenden Street exit were gateways to Providence and gateways to our community. We were concerned if there was a parking lot right next to an entrance to the highway there would be congestion and possible accidents. The spacing was bad.''
That was seven years ago. But The Hummel Report has found that within a year of the judge's ruling the city was sending the owners violation notices for continuing to use the lot for parking - without the city's permission and in defiance of the court order.
Those violations first started in November of 2007 and continued through 2008, then stopped. Why? The city couldn't tell us.
The violations resumed again in mid-2012 and were issued virtually monthly.
The city eventually placed a lien on the property.
After we brought it to the city's attention two weeks ago, the law department has begun looking into a course of action. Beyond that, answers are tough to come by.
Lykins: ``At different points we issued violations and reissued violations...''
Jeff Lykins, the director of the city's Inspections and Standards Department - the enforcement arm on zoning issues - could not provide us specifics when we sat down with him this week.
Hummel: ``It was violation notices almost monthly, saying you're still not in compliance, you're still not in compliance. At what point does the city say, well clearly he's ignoring us, we need to do something here. How bad does it have to get?''
Lykins: ``Right. These situations vary with each case. And what I don't have available to me is what kind of interaction it was. It could be he was promising to do something and they were giving him time. I don't know that. That's a possbility. Or it could just be with the number of cases we have here that it was overlooked. So we typically take it case by case.My research is a little difficult in that this is old enough that a majority of people involved back then are no long with the department. So I've had a little trouble getting all of the facts.''
Lykins could not even tell us whether the city has collected any fines.
Over the past six months we have found several cars regularly parked there - most are tenants of this four-story apartment building at the corner of Gano and Wickenden, also owned by Puleo and Boutin.
The city didn't have to go very far to find evidence - as its tax assessment company took a picture with three cars in the lot during a revaluation.
Hummel: ``I'm wondering what message that sends to the neighbors, who took this to court, they spent multiple thousands of dollars, they trusted city on enforcement and it seems, quite frankly, that the city's dropped the ball here. Would you agree with that assessment?''
Lykins: ``I don't have enough knowledge to say that I agree with that. It could be that he was indicating compliance was forthcoming . I don't know if he had indicated to one of my inspectors that he has a zoning application, get back to zoning, so I can only speculate.''
A sign on the lot says it's for sale - so we called the number and talked with a man who identified himself as Steve. He didn't try to hide the fact he was using the lot for parking.
Hummel: ``I had seen a sign about the property on Gano Street.''
Steve: ``Yeah, the parking...well, does it look like an empty lot>''
Steve: ``Yeah, well that is selling in conjunction with a house that's on the corner, the corner of Wickenden and Gano. If you're interested in both of them I can't sell one without the other because that I use for parking.''
Hummel: ``So you use the lot for what, tenants for parking?''
Steve: ``Yeah, I got sometimes like two, three cars it depends, that's all I use it for, not much more than that.''
He did not mention the city had a lien on the property. Steve also suggested we contact the real estate agent handling the property, a woman named Michelle.
Michelle: ``The lot itself is probably one of the last lots in all of Providence for sale: That's on for $149,00.''
Michelle: ``And the building at the corner of Wickenden and Gano is on for $595,000. ''
Hummel: ``The lot, I see some cars in there you just using that for parking?''
Michelle: ``Yeah, occasional parking, you know it's really...you know it is a buildable lot. We just purchased it, you know quite a few years ago.''
Schnepel: ``It's a slimy way to go about winning a case, just let it lie and let everybody forget about it, then creep back in again. There wasn't any effort made to change the decision and to make it right and legal and just doing it.''
Hummel: ``Did you ever think you'd every be revisiting this issue?''
Schnepel: ``I thought they would appeal it, because if they wanted the revenue from that lot, I thought they would appeal it and go through it legally.''
Hummel: ``A kid's going to do as much as his parent allows him to. And in this case the city is the parent and he's the kid and he doesn't seem to be responding to the punishment. What does it take to get the kid to comply?''
Lykins: ``Right. And that's exactly what we're looking at, that's what the Law Department is looking at. They're looking at all of the avenues available to them and they're making a decision as we speak.''
Lykins says he expects that decision sometime this month.
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.