The Hummel Report

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In Limbo

Two years after the town of Coventry took a truck repair business to court to keep it from intruding on dozens who live in a nearby neighborhood, the case remains in limbo.  Neighbors say they feel abandoned by the town and helpless to restore a quality of life that has steadily deteriorated. This week, Jim Hummel explains why it’s taken so long to resolve the dispute - and has a front-row seat for what some of the neighbors see from their back yards every day.

SCRIPT:

 

It is a quiet, residential neighborhood in Coventry - at least that’s what many thought when they bought houses here.

Savlas: “I did not know there was any type of company back there until about six or seven years ago.”

Albert: “You kind of heard him every now and then - but it wasn’t a big deal, not like it is now.”

Tyler Albert - and Diane Salvas are talking about Ferrara Mechanical Services at 225 Hopkins Hill, almost hidden from the street.

It is a truck repair business right in the middle of a residential zone that neighbors say has drastically changed their quality of life over the past several years. They - and the town - maintain what started out as a machine shop has expanded its operation over the past decade - without permission.

Albert came here in 2011.

Albert: “When I brought the property you look at the zoning map and there’s a big R-20 on that property. You think that when you buy this property that, oh yeah, you’re in a residential neighborhood. I didn’t realize that I had an industrial property in the back. And again, it was supposed to be a machine shop, not heavy duty auto repair, welding.”

But this is what it has become - something that many neighbors were unaware of until the fall of 2016 when Dan Ferrara began digging with a backhoe near the property line of the homeowners that had buffer of trees and bushes.

Albert: “He jumps out of the back hoe, comes up to the fence, starts yelling at us. Asks us what we’re doing, what we want to know, he was very aggressive, he basically wanted to have a physical altercation with myself.”

The town of Coventry - which had issued periodic warnings to Ferrara - finally filed a lawsuit in Kent County Superior Court in the fall of 2016 and secured a restraining order against the business.

But the damage had already been done.

And this is the view some of the neighbors have had as they’ve watched the business grow. A little more shielded in the summer, but the winter months give them an unobstructed view of what’s going on next door.

The case finally went to trial a year later - in December of 2017 - and some of the neighbors had the opportunity to testify. But nine months later, the case remains largely in limbo - and those living here say they feel abandoned by the town and helpless to restore a quality of life that has steadily deteriorated.

Theroux: “This is very exhausting and it’s very time consuming and it’s been going on for years.”

Cathy Theroux has been relentless, pushing council members and other officials to take action and trying to get documents from the town. The house she bought in 2004 is adjacent to the narrow driveway leading to the back of Ferrara’s property.

Everything was fine the first several years after she moved in, but got worse shortly after Ferrara took over the operation at 225 Hopkins Hill about a decade ago.

Theroux: “You know, it was 24/7, there was more noise, there was dust, so I would call sporadically for awhile and the town would say, okay, we’re looking into it. The police would come up and they look and say they did make a visit. And I trusted that the town was aware and was handling this.”

She frequently sees this from her back porch and bedroom, taking multiple pictures and videos to show the town what she has had to live with.

 

Hummel: “Did you have any idea what was going on back there before then?”

Theroux: “No, no, other than there was a lot of trucks come in and out, a lot of noise. It’s a 24/7 operation.”

Hummel: “And what did you think when you saw all of that back there?”

Theroux: “I was shocked, I was shocked.”

Theroux said at first she tried to be nice and see if she could reason with Ferrara.

Theroux: “I can no longer have company in the back yard. I’ve gone over there, years ago, when I knew that I was going to have a cookout and I would try to be friendly and say, could you please not put any trucks along my fence line this weekend, because I’m going to have people over, I’m going to have a cookout and he would never agree to that. As a matter of fact he’d put two trucks there.”

Just last month, Theroux was reading in her back yard when a truck driver stopped and came over, draping two arms over her fence. She managed to capture some of it on her phone.

Theroux: “He stopped the truck and then jumped on my fence, he was hanging over the upper part of his body, yelling at me that I had no right to take videos or pictures. And that he was going to call a lawyer or the police, I couldn’t get everything he was saying. He actually scared me because I didn’t expect a guy to jump on my fence, and I tried to take a picture or video and it was choppy.”

According to a police report obtained by The Hummel Report the officer spoke with Ferrara ``who advised he was unaware of the incident that occurred and did not know of the party responsible due to heavy traffic in and out all day.”

Theroux said the officer didn’t even look at her video and just took the officer’s word for it.

Theroux: “You don’t feel very comfortable in your own yard, on your deck or in your back yard when you have people that are yelling at you.”

In response to the lawsuit filed by the town, Ferrara’s attorney, Patrick J. McBurney, argued in a court filing the business was simply a continuation of what a previous owner had been doing when Ferrara took over more than a decade ago: a machine repair shop. Simply put,  it had ‘grandfather rights,’ he said.

As for the buffer: McBurney wrote that Ferrara was ``cleaning up’’ his property by ``removing small vegetation and shrubbery that (Ferrara) did not feel contributed to the overall aesthetics of the property.”

McBurney declined our request for an interview and a tour of his client’s property

but two `No Trespassing’ signs went up at the entrance within days of our request.

 

D’Agostino: “In my view, on behalf of the town, I think what they have there is an expansion of some pre-existing use.”

Town Solicitor David D’Agostino has been the point man for Coventry on the case.

D’Agostino: “If a use was taking place before zoning was adopted, as long as that use continues in the same measure, the person and the property owner has the right to continue that use.”

Hummel: “But - has to come to the town if you want to expand it.”

 D’Agostino: “Absolutely.”

Hummel: “And in your mind has there been expansion?”

D’Agostino: “In my mind I think there’s been expansion. I think the evidence would suggest there’s been expansion of the use. And there hasn’t been zoning relief requested since 1987 or ’88.”

Hummel: “You understand the neighbor’s frustration, right? Because it’s their backyard.”

D’Agostino: “I do, sure. I absolutely understand their frustration, even though it’s not my backyard, I get the concept. I understand their concerns. I had an opportunity to have those neighbors testify as to what their concerns were, and they did testify on  the record, in court.”

One of the delays in getting a resolution:  the judge wanted the two sides to try and reach a settlement after the trial in December.

Theroux: “They wanted us….to come some kind of an agreement, so we could all live together. And we don’t want to come to an agreement. So the agreement would be things like: well you can’t have 20 trucks, but you could have 3. You can work 5 days a week, you can’t work 7; it was to keep them working. What we’re looking for is to see how is this property zoned? Is it only supposed to be a machine shop as the previous owner had it. Do you have grandfather rights to make it into this big industrial business? Or are you just bulldozing through everything and doing whatever you want. You have no permits. The town knows he doesn’t’ have any permits.”

Another twist came in December right before the trial, when the judge granted Ferrara a modification to the town’s restraining order that had basically stopped him from further altering his property - in order to deal with large pools of water on his land.

This series of drone video taken by one of the neighbors’ sons shows how from May until July Ferrara cleared and paved a large portion of his property.

D’Agostino: “I understand exactly what the neighbors are talking about because we subsequently, after they had done some site work, the town received complaints from the neighbors, we went and conducted a site investigation to find out what was taking place there. I can tell you from my perspective I saw a lot more what appeared to be paved area than I was anticipating.”

Albert: “You can tell he wanted to create a big parking lot. So he’s flattened the entire property. Now it just seems like it’s being dragged on and dragged on and dragged on. And I understand that litigation takes time and I understand that it’s not overnight. What I don’t understand is why there was a modification to the restraining order anyways. I did understand a bit about the water pooling. But you know, keeping a tight leash on that would have been the way to go. Now he’s just done everything. How does any work up here reference to the water pooling that was 10 feet from my property line. Or 100 feet on the other side, or 150 feet that way. How does that mitigate water pooling that was 10 feet from my property line.”

Hummel: “What would you like to see happen?”

Salvass: “I would like to see them fined every single day that they have kept operating after they had a temporary restraining order.”

D’Agostino says the town’s hands are tied until the judge makes a decision.

D’Agostino: “The town cannot force trees to be replanted, cannot force things to happen. Only a judge - through a decision and an order - can actually render a judgment.”

The two attorneys met last week with the judge, who ordered them to submit post-trial memos by the end of this week. Which means a decision may on the horizon.

Albert: “I’m really disappointed in the town that I thought was here to protect its residents. The only place in this world that we should ever feel safe is in our home. And when I have a 9,000-gallon gasoline tanker truck three feet from my fence, I don’t feel safe. I can’t bring my nine-month year old or my three year old out in the backyard to enjoy a backyard you pay for. I don’t feel safe.”

In Coventry, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.