City Councilor John Tobin is calling on the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) to cut homeowners a little slack regarding where they park their cars. He plans to explore the topic at a yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing, he said.
He told the Gazette he wants a temporary halt to the issuance of fines for “illegal front-yard parking” for a few months. He wants ISD to issue letters to all of the homeowners currently in violation of parking rules, so they can try to fix the problem before ISD fines them.
In many cases, homeowners, “after 15, 20 or 32 years are being told they are parking illegally,” and issued heavy fines, for which their only recourse is to challenge in housing court, he said.
Instead Tobin wants ISD to “give them ample time to remedy the situation…90 to 120 days, and then go out and whack them,” he said.
In May and June, as the Gazette reported at the time, Tobin’s office received a rash of phone calls from JP residents complaining that they had received over $100 fines for parking in off-street spaces. The residents claimed they had used them for years and presumed they were legal.
Barbara Gibson of St. Joseph Street found out she had been parking illegally for 19 years via a $150 fine. John Fulton of Sedgwick Street said he had racked up $600 in fines for using a driveway that had been there for 15 years.
In some cases—like at a condominium at 3-5 Oakdale St.—condo owners were sold parking spaces that did not, in fact, exist. Laura Wulf, who owns one of the units at that address, told the Gazette the master deed for the building includes off-street parking, but no permits were ever filed with the city to make that parking legal.
Under the current rules, once stuck with a fine, homeowners have to go to housing court to contest it. Tobin told the Gazette his office has been successful in getting some of the fines overturned, “on a case-by-case basis.”
His office also tries to “walk [homeowners] through [the process] and make sure they are up to code,” he said. That process can be time-consuming and expensive. Homeowners have to spend thousands of dollars hiring a surveyor and, in some cases, getting a new curb cut installed. They have to get permits from the Public Works Department for the curb cut and from ISD for the driveway. Depending on the neighborhood and the shape of their property, they may also have to go through a community process to get a zoning variance for the driveway.
While Tobin’s office received over a half-dozen complaints from JP residents about surprise ISD fines in late-spring and early summer, complaints tapered off as the summer progressed, Tobin said.
At the time, David Isberg, an aide in the Tobin’s office, said it appeared ISD was targeting driveways.
In some cases, cited driveways had proper curb cuts and looked okay, but apparently did not have the proper ISD-issued use permits. “The building inspectors must have a list of which houses had permitted driveways and cited the ones that weren’t on the list,” he said.
According to information from ISD obtained by the Gazette through a Freedom of Information Act request, ISD appeared, as of late June, to be moving more aggressively on unpermitted driveways in JP than it had in the previous year. In all of 2007, ISD’s Building and Structures division issued 90 driveway violations in JP. By June 24, 2008, it had issued 91 here.
Citywide, in 2007, ISD issued 2,217 citations. As of June, 2008, it had issued 1,625.
ISD did not return Gazette calls for this article.
Tobin said the department has been open to working with his office and in many cases willing to waive the fines it issued.
He also noted that in a lot of cases, ISD is fining people who consciously break the rules. “Nothing disturbs me more than seeing someone destroy the character of a neighborhood by parking on his or her front lawn,” he said.
On Sept. 24, the councilor filed an order calling for a public hearing to broadly explore ISD’s citation system.
Currently, fines are immediately issued for all violations except for site cleanliness at homes and businesses, according to a press release issued by Tobin’s office.
The hearing will “explore the issue” of whether ISD should implement a comprehensive warning system for all of the violations under its jurisdiction, said Liz Sullivan from the councilor’s office. Tobin’s proposal for a one-time grace period for un-permitted driveways will be discussed at that hearing, she said.
Tobin said he hopes to have the hearing scheduled soon.