HYDE SQ.—The owner of Jamaica Plain Auto Body once again has a plan to get rid of the paint fumes from his shop, and once again it is on hold due to neighborhood opposition.
Matthew Hayes withdrew plans to expand and renovate the shop this week after the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Zoning Committee told him to talk with neighbors first. Hayes submitted the plans without notifying neighbors.
“I’m sorry, Matt. If you had met with neighbors, I’d be voting for this, because it’s so much better,” said Zoning Committee member Stephanie Bode Ward at a Sept. 13 meeting.
Hayes told the Gazette he planned to resubmit the plan without changes quickly and use the estimated three months before the next hearing to meet with neighbors.
“Everybody needs time to come around, so we’ll give them that,” Hayes said.
The body shop at 18 Rock Hill St., was grandfathered into a residential neighborhood, and sits at the base of a cliff with houses atop it. Paint fumes from the body shop’s chimney float up to the clifftop houses on Cranston Street, where neighbors have complained heatedly for five years.
There is no dispute that the paint fumes are intense at times. “Honestly, what’s there now is horrible,” Hayes said at the Zoning Committee meeting, referring to the shop’s fumes.
City inspectors have always said the fumes are not a direct health danger. They have also said that smelly fumes are an illegal nuisance. A city health inspector once said that the body shop’s fumes made him nauseated.
However, JP Auto Body has never been cited, despite repeated warnings and deadlines, according to Hayes and city officials. It is unclear why.
The controversy amounts to a completely legal business operating in a highly unusual location, a paradox that Bode Ward summed up by saying, “The problem is he’s doing everything right.”
Hayes has attempted or suggested various fume fixes over the years, but has always run into controversy. An early solution was the installation of expensive charcoal filters on the paint spray booth, but Hayes acknowledged he did not change the filters on time, allowing fumes to escape.
More recently, Hayes has proposed various remodelings or reconstructions of the shop, all involving a new spray booth and related equipment that reportedly would emit few fumes.
A large-scale reconstruction proposal last year was rejected by the city’s zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) after the failure of an agreement between Hayes and neighbors.
Neighbors and Zoning Committee members said they believed an agreement was reached for Hayes to seek a temporary occupany permit that could be revoked if his plans didn’t fix the paint fume problem. But Hayes and city officials say such an agreement is legally unenforceable. In any case, the failure of agreement with neighbors led to the ZBA rejection.
After a ZBA rejection, property owners have to wait a year before resubmitting plans. However, Hayes quickly submitted new plans late last year, getting around the one-year limit by using a slightly different street address, according to Mayor’s Office representative Leslie Delaney Hawkins.
The new plan involves a small addition, exterior remodeling and soundproofing of walls to partly address neighborhood noise complaints. It would include a new spray booth and a more powerful chimney to shoot fumes high above the neighborhood. Hayes said he also will start using water-based paints that do not emit the strongest sort of fumes.
“What’s best for the neighborhood ends up being best for the shop,” Hayes said.
Zoning Committee members appeared ready to approve the plan. The only problem was that Hayes, despite working on the idea for nine months, never met with neighbors about it. About 25 Cranston Street residents attended the meeting to oppose the plan, while two Paul Gore Street residents attended to support Hayes. Fumes are not a problem on Paul Gore.
“We feel very ambushed by this,” said Cranston Street resident Gretchen Van Ness. “We’ve been sandbagged.”
Van Ness and others argued that the business, or at least the painting, doesn’t belong in the neighborhood. Zoning Committee members rejected that argument as outside their jurisdiction. Instead, they pressed neighbors on details.
“I’m seeing a lot of things in his new proposal you asked for last time,” said Zoning Committee member Stephen Lussier. “What’s missing from this, other than a bulldozer?”
Neighbors said some of the plan indeed looks good, but they had no time to review it and were suspicious about the lack of notice.
“They’re promises by somebody whose promises haven’t been kept in the past,” Van Ness said.
With Hayes due for a ZBA hearing only four days later, the Zoning Committee advised him to ask for a deferral so he had time to meeting with neighbors.
But Delaney Hawkins warned that ZBA deferrals now result in a six- to eight-month delay before a rescheduled hearing. She said that withdrawing and then resubmitting plans is actually faster. That is the route Hayes ended up taking.