City blasts its own permit on local house

September 26, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

JP CENTER—When the house at 5 St. John St. was officially dubbed a three-family dwelling this spring by an obscure city committee with no public notice, neighbors were outraged.

This month, the city’s zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) agreed with the neighbors, tossing out the decision by the Committee to Legalize Occupancy (also known as the Occupancy Committee).

Now Christ Stamatos—the Jamaica Plain-based building owner—is planning to sue the city. Neighbors and City Councilor John Tobin are still scratching their heads. And the future of the people who live in the building’s three recently renovated units is unclear.

“It’s all rented out,” Stamatos told the Gazette. Asked whether tenants would have to move now that the occupancy permit is in legal limbo, he said, “I hope not.”

The ZBA itself was reportedly mystified about the existence of the Occupancy Committee, an internal Inspectional Services Department (ISD) committee whose membership is unclear.

“I don’t know who this Occupancy Committee is,” Tobin told the Gazette. “I’ve never heard of them. I don’t know what floor they’re on—maybe on the fourth floor,” he joked. Boston City Hall does not have any fourth-floor offices.

The Occupancy Committee is mentioned in a contractor’s guide on ISD’s web site. It explains that when a structure “does not have a legal occupancy on record,” ISD staff researches the property, and the Occupancy Committee then rules on the proposed occupancy. There is no description of who is on the committee or when it meets.

In any case, it appears from ISD permits that 5 St. John did have a legal occupancy on record—in fact, it is variously described as a single-family and two-family. Usually, changes in occupancy, or requests to confirm the existing occupancy, are handled as a normal zoning variance. That means notification to abutters and review by the ZBA and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council’s Zoning Committee.

ISD spokesperson Lisa Timberlake did not have immediate comment on the 5 St. John situation.

On Sept. 9, the ZBA responded to neighbors’ requests for clarification, saying the Occupancy Committee was wrong in making the house a three-family. The area is zoned as two-family.

“The ZBA was clearly displeased and seemed not to know what this committee is; and was adamant that the ISD did not have this authority,” St. John Street resident Christine Zanella said in an e-mail to the Gazette.

Stamatos maintains that the house has been used as three-family since the 1960s. “It is a legal three-family,” he said, adding he will likely appeal the decision in Housing Court.

“I’m not saying [Stamatos] did anything wrong,” Tobin said. “He was told by somebody there was an Occupancy Committee, and he found them.”

“We’re going to make sure there’s a community process,” Tobin said.

Mystery history

The 5 St. John house was formerly owned by Gerda Bissett, who was beaten to death there in a still-unsolved 2005 homicide. Other people lived in the building at that time, but neighbors argue they were “roomers,” not tenants or owners of separate, legal units.

ISD records have contradictory information about the house’s legal occupancy. A 1984 work permit lists its occupancy as two-family. A 1919 work permit lists it as a single-family. So do 2007 permits, citing the 1919 records.

The ISD file also includes a page from the 1977-78 Boston city directory that shows three people—including Bissett—living there. That is not an official occupancy document.

The local Stamatos family bought the house last year. Christ Stamatos, who heads the local Century 21 Pondside Realty company, recently renovated the building. “I increased the value of all the houses on that street,” Stamatos said.

ISD records indicate that Stamatos applied early this year to either change the occupancy to three-family or confirm it as a three-family. ISD rejected the request, noting that it would violate yard space and parking requirements under the two-family zoning.

Apparently, Stamatos then went to the Occupancy Committee and asked for a two-family occupancy permit. The Occupancy Committee rejected that in April.

In May, the Occupancy Committee finally approved the occupancy as a three-family “per additional info,” according to an ISD “examination of plans” document. The Occupancy Committee ruling apparently involves no community process or notification. Stamatos then began renovations.

The Occupancy Committee decisions appear to be signed by Harold McGonagle, head of ISD’s building division. That has led neighbors to suspect the Occupancy Committee is a “committee of one,” as Zanella put it.

Several neighbors were surprised and angered to see renovations under way without any community review or explanation. In their review request to the ZBA, they complained that Stamatos had not gone through a zoning variance process; that no renovation plans were available; and that the supposed three-family still violated the two-family zoning.

“By supporting this ‘as of right’ permit, ISD would be promoting out-of-code, substandard housing,” the neighbors, collectively calling themselves the St. John Street Group, wrote to the ZBA.

While the ZBA agreed with the neighbors, it is unclear what the building’s legal occupancy is. Stamatos complained that the ZBA made its decision without ISD officials present, relying on “hearsay.” The future of the house is now “probably [going to be] tied up in court,” he said.

Tobin said that whatever the situation is, residents need to have information and input.

“The average person has not memorized the Boston zoning code,” Tobin said. “There’s got to be transparency in the neighborhood.”