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City of Burlington sued for allegedly withholding public records surrounding dispute over boarding houses

The owners of several boarding houses in Burlington have filed a lawsuit in Alamance County superior court, seeking to force the city of Burlington to turn over public records surrounding a legal dispute over the city’s efforts to shutter a boarding house along Maple Avenue.

Andrews Properties, as well as three affiliated companies and three individual plaintiffs, filed the suit Monday against the city of Burlington, retiring Burlington city manager Hardin Watkins, city attorney David Huffman, and two other city officials.

In their suit, the plaintiffs allege that they filed a public records request with the city in May 2021, seeking copies of “a significant amount of public information,” including “emails, text messages, and phone calls” related to Andrews Properties, its affiliated companies, and the three individual plaintiffs.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs emailed Morgan Lasater, community engagement manager for the city of Burlington, on September 30 to renew their public records request. After receiving no response to their first and second inquiries, the plaintiffs claim they submitted a second public records request on October 1, 2021.

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Lasater allegedly informed the plaintiffs on November 1, 2021, “I do not have a timeline on these at this point,” referring to when the public records request might be fulfilled. State law requires public records to be furnished “at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision” and copies to be provided “as promptly as possible.”

In their suit, the plaintiffs contend, “Ten months have passed,” and the defendants have failed to produce the requested public records.

The plaintiffs are seeking: All documents, including mails, text messages, notes (to include “city note pads) and other public records that are believed to have been generated by nearly a dozen Burlington city officials between October 1, 2020 and May 25, 2021 and pertaining to property at 504 West Web Avenue, Burlington, and/or Andrews Properties; Andrews Properties of the Carolinas LLC; Steven Andrews; Grant Andrews; and Billy Andrews.

The plaintiffs are asking to be given priority for a hearing, in keeping with a statutory provision that accords priority for persons denied access to public records. The plaintiffs are also asking a judge to enter an order to compel the Burlington city defendants to furnish the public records and to enter an order (“a writ of mandamus”) requiring the defendants to comply with the state’s Public Records Law.

Attorney Randolph (“Randy”) James of Winston-Salem is representing the plaintiffs for their suit against the city.

Burlington’s code enforcement staff ordered Andrews Properties to close the boarding house at 504 West Webb Avenue last year. A superior court judge later remanded that case back to Burlington’s board of adjustment due to irregularities in which testimony was given, via an online hearing amid the ongoing pandemic.

Meanwhile, Burlington’s board of adjustment held a hearing last month to determine whether a second boarding house that Andrews Properties owns, at 614 Maple Avenue, was given “grandfather status” in 1998, which would allow it to continue operating in a residential zone.

Andrews Properties had requested the hearing last fall after Burlington’s code enforcement staff ordered the boarding house to shut down.

Steven Andrews testified last month that Andrews Properties acquired the property at 614 Maple Avenue in 2017. He also testified that the city had grandfathered two other properties, at 603 West Davis Street and 512 Maple Avenue in Burlington, which allowed boarding houses to operate at locations originally zoned for office/institutional.

Steven Andrews during Burlington board of adjustment hearing last month.

Under direct examination by his own lawyer, James K. Pendergrass, Jr., Steven Andrews testified that zoning certifications from 1998 supported his claim that the property at 614 Maple Avenue had been given grandfather status. He testified that he had been given the zoning certificate for 614 Maple Avenue along with other papers he received when the sale closed in 2017.

However, local attorney Sherri Hamlett, a onetime paralegal for Burlington city attorney David Huffman, presented the board of adjustment with a zoning certification for another Andrews property at 504 West Webb Avenue, as well as two zoning certificates purportedly signed and notarized on the same date – June 30, 1998 – despite being owned by three different people at the time.

The city’s board of adjustment voted 4-1 last to deny Andrews’ appeal of the decision by the code enforcement staff that the boarding house at 614 Maple Avenue lacks the grandfather status or other legal basis to continue operating at that location.

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