Many ‘driveways’ aren’t, says ISD

May 2, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

Wake up. Drive to work. Drive home. Go to sleep. This familiar routine is being interrupted for an increasing number of JP residents upon learning the places they leave their cars are not driveways after all.

David Isberg, chief of staff for City Councilor John Tobin, said the councilor’s office has noted a sharp increase in calls in recent months from JP constituents regarding citations for not having curb cuts.

The citations, issued by the Inspectional Services Department (ISD), are for violations of rules requiring curb cuts for driveway construction and permits for off-street parking, Isberg said. In many cases, homeowners who have been parking their cars in the same spots for decades are coming home to $100-plus fines.

Tobin represents West Roxbury as well as most of Jamaica Plain, but, Isberg said, all of the complaints the office has received have been from JP, where “parking is at a premium.”

Barbara Gibson of St. Joseph Street told the Gazette that she had been parking on her property for close to two decades before she was issued a $150 fine in March for not having a curb cut.

“I really struggle with the fact that after 19 years I’m suddenly being told I am in violation, with no warning,” Gibson said.

John Fulton of Sedgwick Street has a similar story. “We moved in June, 2006. The driveway was where it has been for the last 15 years,” he said.

“Last summer we got a ticket. It seemed like kind of an anomaly, but a year later we got two more—for illegal yard parking,” Fulton said. “Obviously it didn’t matter that it had been there for a long time.”

He has racked up $600 in fines.

While Fulton said he is taking steps to install a curb cut at his house, Gibson said she has chosen to just stop parking on her property. “I am not going to spend thousands of dollars [to have a curb cut made] when I can just park on the street,” she said.

According to Isberg, Tobin’s office has received eight calls as of last week from residents complaining about tickets.

There are probably many more people with similar complaints who have not called Tobin’s office, Isberg said.

“After three [complaints], it became a trend and the councilor decided we need sit down and get on the same page as ISD and Code Enforcement,” he said.

Tobin will meet with ISD officials this month to discuss the department’s ticketing policy and the possibility of warnings being issued prior to fines, he said.

One possibility might be sending a letter to homeowners letting them know their driveways may be illegal, he said.

Michael Mackin, head of ISD’s Code Enforcement division, said that the increase in calls does not reflect an effort to step up enforcement in JP.

“About two or three years ago, the City of Boston gave us the power to issue fiduciary fines for illegal driveways. It was such an abused issue that we have been busy with it right from the beginning,” he said.

Code Enforcement will issue a citation if there is a visible violation, Mackin said, like a driver obviously jumping the curb to get to a parking spot. Enforcement is mostly in response to complaints from the community, he said.

Isberg said that in some of the cases the city councilor’s office has heard about it seems likely that a more thorough investigation had been done.

At a house at the corner of Chestnut and Spring Park avenues, he said, a violation was issued for a driveway that has a curb cut because residents had not secured a use permit to park cars on their property.

“It looks like a normal curb cut, but ISD said they don’t have the usage,” Isberg said.

In another case he described, condominium owners had been sold parking spaces along with their units, only to find upon receiving ISD tickets that the spaces were not permitted for parking.

Building inspectors, who work out of a separate division of ISD, are more likely to review driveway permits, Mackin said.

Homeowners looking to legitimize their parking or install new driveways have to hire a contractor to draw up plans and have those plans approved by ISD, he said.

In some cases, he said, variances will be required—a process that generally involves review by the neighborhood, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) Zoning Committee and the full body of the JPNC. The city zoning Board of Appeal then approves or denies the variance based largely on the results of the community review.

And that process can be tricky. At the April 24 meeting of the JPNC Zoning Committee, Eben Godman and Allison Werntgen presented a proposal to install a two-car driveway in front of their house at 23 Green St.

The committee deferred judgment on the proposal, in part because members were not satisfied with the plans Godman presented. Committee members also said that the zoning code allows side-yard, but not front-yard, parking. Zoning Committee member Marie Turley that is a “strong” prohibition and that even if Godman comes back with better plans, it does not necessarily mean the committee will approve it.

Godman said his is one of the only houses on his section of Green Street without parking, and most of those driveways are in front yards. Those spaces were apparently grandfathered in when the zoning was changed.

He said he has owned his house for close to a decade and said he has been “dealing with on-street parking for a long time.”

He wants to install the spaces, he said, because he is starting a family and does not want his pregnant wife to have to walk “three or four blocks” after parking.

He said he proposed putting the spaces where he did in part because residential parking switches to visitor parking in the street right in front of his house and he was hesitant about installing a curb cut that would remove a visitor parking space.

While the Zoning Committee told Godman this would not be much of an issue, Isberg told the Gazette that the city is generally looking for a net gain in parking spaces.

“The way they look at it, a curb cut for one car takes one on-street spot away…That’s kind of a struggle with the city,” he said.

For his part, Sedgwick Street homeowner and Ferris Wheels Bike Shop proprietor Jeffrey Ferris said one solution to JP’s parking woes would be fewer cars.

“Get rid of the cars! Get ’em on a bicycle! Get a trailer! You are living in a city. It’s the new urban lifestyle,” Ferris said in a Gazette interview.

He said people should take services offered by companies that rent vehicles by the hour, like Zipcar, more seriously, and look into car sharing.

“I have a little truck my neighbors borrow. You don’t need to own a car for occasional stuff,” he said.