Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Fraudulent documents exposed during board of adjustment hearing on boarding house

A seemingly mundane hearing on the legal status of a Burlington boarding house took a dramatic turn this week when attorneys for the city made the shattering claim that a key piece of evidence for the property owners was a forgery – and a rather inept one at that.

This Perry Masonesque moment came in the final minutes of a three-hour quasi-judicial hearing that Burlington’s board of adjustment conducted on Tuesday morning to determine whether a boarding house that Andrews Properties owns at 614 Maple Avenue has “grandfather status” to legally operate in a residential zone.

This boarding house at 614 Maple Avenue was the subject of Tuesday’s board of adjustment hearing.

The grand reveal on the part of the city’s lawyers ultimately cast doubt on a purported municipal record that seemed to support the company’s claim. It also proved persuasive enough to compel the board of adjustment to vote 4-to-1 against the property owner’s case.

Andrews Properties had originally requested this ill-fated hearing last fall after the city’s code enforcement staff ordered it to shut down the establishment at 614 Maple Avenue because it appeared to lack the necessary permission to operate.

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This order followed a similar action by the city’s code enforcement staff regarding another Andrews-owned boarding house at 504 West Webb Avenue.

504 West Webb Avenue, another of the Andrews Properties, that has run afoul of the city.

In that case, the board of adjustment heard and rejected the property owner’s appeal during a “virtual” hearing last year – only to have a superior court judge bump the matter back to the board due to the unorthodox way that one of the city’s witnesses had testified in the online session.

Tuesday’s hearing, which occurred live and in person, featured many of the trappings of a judicial proceeding – as is standard fare for any quasi-judicial matter before a municipal body. From the swearing in of witnesses to the presentation of evidentiary exhibits, the events of the day mimicked much of the action of a real courtroom showdown.


The Andrews’ case
During the course of this trial-like proceeding, the board of adjustment heard testimony from Steven Andrews, a son of the company’s founder, who argued that the property had already been operating as a boarding house before his family acquired it in 2017. Andrews acknowledged that the firm currently operates four boarding houses in Burlington, and added that the company hopes to improve the general perception of dwellings by operating inviting, well-run establishments on behalf of their tenants.

Steven Andrews of Andrews Properties

Andrews went on to observe that the city has conferred grandfather status on two homes at 603 West Davis Street and 512 Maple Avenue because they were once zoned for office and institutional use – a classification that had traditionally allowed boarding houses to operate.

512 Maple Avenue, Burlington, another Andrews Property for which the city says there is no documentation of its status as a boarding house.

The city has never made such an allowance for the two boarding houses at 504 West Webb or 614 Maple Avenue.

Even so, Andrews argued that these establishments are a necessary component of the city’s housing stock for low-income residents.

“A majority of the people who live in boarding houses earn less than $1,000 a month, and this is the only option,” he said. “The city says they have an issue with homelessness in downtown. They would really have an issue with homelessness if there weren’t any boarding houses…If this boarding house was closed down there would be eight individuals homeless today.”

“A majority of the people who live in boarding houses earn less than $1,000 a month, and this is the only option. The city says they have an issue with homelessness in downtown. They would really have an issue with homelessness if there weren’t any boarding houses…If this boarding house was closed down there would be eight individuals homeless today.” – Steven Andrews, Andrews Properties which operates several boarding houses in Burlington

Under questioning from his lawyer, James K. Pendergrass, Jr., Andrews asserted that there’s documentary evidence as far back as the 1990s to support the grandfathered status of the property at 614 Maple Avenue. Pendergrass went on to produce a zoning certification from 1998 that appeared to confirm his client’s assertion.

He also recalled that a code enforcement officer who visited the property in 2019 had no qualms about its use as a boarding house and found “no egregious violations” to substantiate the anonymous complaint which had brought him on site.

Andrews acknowledged that his family’s relationship with the city grew more strained a couple of years later when a different code enforcement officer followed up on another tip from the public. This officer’s efforts culminated last September when representatives of several city departments converged on the property in order to serve an administrative warrant that they had obtained from a judge.

“The city is on record going back to the early 2000s saying that they don’t like boarding houses. The treatment was almost a vendetta. It was one issue after another.” – Steven Andrews, Andrews Properties which operates several boarding houses in Burlington

Andrews said that this administrative warrant, combined with the city’s efforts to shutter his family’s Webb Avenue boarding house, have convinced him that Burlington’s municipal government is pursuing some kind of campaign of attrition against these residences.

“The city is on record going back to the early 2000s saying that they don’t like boarding houses,” he added. “The treatment was almost a vendetta. It was one issue after another.”

Andrews’ claim to operate safe, salubrious boarding houses was largely confirmed by Karl Cheek, a nine-year veteran of Burlington’s code enforcement staff who conducted the original inspection in 2019. But the board heard a much different story from other city staff members, who called to the “stand” by local attorney Sherri Hamlett, a onetime paralegal for city attorney David Huffman, who had been recruited to help him present the case against Andrews Properties.

Attorney Sherri Hamlett

During the course of the hearing, Hamlett called on members of the city’s planning, code enforcement, inspections, and fire fighting staffs to counter many of Andrews’ assertions. Particularly vivid was the testimony of Chris Reynolds, a code enforcement officer who had handled the more recent complaints about the property at 614 Maple Avenue.

Burlington code enforcement officer Chris Reynolds, who testified during the quasi-judicial hearing Tuesday.

During his time testifying, Reynolds gave the board of adjustment a photographic tour of the property using pictures he took when he and his colleagues served the aforementioned administrative warrant on September 28.

The photos which Reynolds shared with the board depicted such things as a busted alarm console, a light fixture with three missing bulbs and exposed wiring, and a water faucet that appeared to produce a meager stream even when both knobs were turned on full blast.

Reynolds also presented photos of doors to individual rooms – some of which had badly peeling paint. Reynolds that he and his colleagues were never able to enter these rooms due to the property owner’s refusal to provide access – refusal that Andrews attributed to his own understanding of his and his tenant’s legal rights.

Hamlett also queried Reynolds about some veiled threats that Andrews allegedly made to him and his colleagues during their interactions, and in particular comments that Andrews had admitted he made about a potential reckoning from then-councilman Jim Butler, who became Burlington’s new mayor in November’s general election. Although Reynolds characterized his interactions with the property owners as “cordial,” he did recall times when Andrews seemed to use Butler’s presumed support for his cause as a rhetorical bullwhip in his dealings with city staff members.

“There has been some conversation about the way I do my job,” the code enforcement officer said, “of telling me that I should just lay low, leave them alone, keep my nose clean, other people might lose their jobs when the council changes.”

Russell Williams, Burlington’s inspections director, recounted an even more pointed reference to Butler when he and other city officials confronted Andrews with the administrative warrant they had obtained.

“What he said, and I quote, is ‘you will be held accountable for stepping onto this property,” Williams recalled. “He said that Mr. Butler will reach out to us and hold us accountable.”

Hamlett also called on Greg Britt, an assistant fire chief who had interactions with the property owners, to provide some additional insight about a fire inspection that had preceded the kerfuffle over the administrative warrant.

Britt conceded that the property owners had actually requested this site visit, which he said one of his department’s inspectors completed with no major problems and no violations that weren’t immediately addressed. He added, however, that the trouble began when the inspector tried to record the results of the inspection in the department’s database of recognized boarding houses in Burlington.

“At the end of the day,” the assistant fire chief recounted, “as is the normal practice for a fire inspector, he went back to the office to enter his information into the database, and the property wasn’t in there.”

Hamlett later revisited the property’s status as a boarding house with the city’s planning manager Conrad Olmedo. In her examination of Olmedo, the attorney zeroed in on the zoning certification, which Andrews had repeatedly invoked as evidence of his claim for grandfathered status – and which didn’t appear in the board’s agenda packet, but was distributed by Pendergrass at the start of the hearing.

In his own testimony, Andrews had claimed to have found this document mixed in with the papers that he received when his family closed on the property at 614 Maple Avenue. He went on to assert that he subsequently received confirmation that the certificate bolstered grandfathered status from the city’s former inspections director Ray Rice, who passed away in 2019.

In response to Hamlett’s inquires, Olmedo acknowledged that the city issues such certificates to “private parties” involved in real estate transactions. But he could find no indication that one had been issued for 614 Maple Avenue, although he was able to pull one up for one of Andrews’ boarding house at 512 Maple Avenue, whose grandfathered status was not in dispute.

Olmedo also acknowledged that he had no record that 614 Maple Avenue had ever been zoned for office and institutional use – a telltale sign of grandfathered status since boarding houses would have been permitted under that classification, and could retain their legal designation as long as they continued to operate after the zoning had changed.

But Hamlett didn’t whisk aside the proverbial curtain until Pendergrass called his client back up to the stand at the tail end of the hearing.

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Hamlett began her coup de gras by presenting Andrews with a copy of this certificate with another that the appellant had submitted for 504 West Webb Avenue and a third that city staff members had found for an Andrews property whose grandfathered status is not in dispute.

Hamlett observed that all three of these documents had apparently been generated on the same day in 1998 despite having been owned by different individuals at the time.

“At the same day, three individuals that had nothing to do with each other went to the planning department and asked for a zoning certificate,” Hamlett said with a tone of ever-increasing skepticism.

Hamlett went on to point out other curious similarities among the three form-style documents. All three had the same signatures, down to the teeniest curly-cue; the same typewritten text, with identical alignment and spacing, in the blanks for approved zoning and current use; the same placement of the notary’s stamp; and even the same crease left by the photocopier. As Hamlett ran through this inventory of eerie similarities, Andrews stared sheepishly at the table in front of him without challenging any of her observations.

Hamlett didn’t go on to state, pointblank, that the appellant’s doppelganger documents were counterfeits based on an original that the city had issued for another Andrews property. But this leap was nevertheless made by Steven Heineman, a member of the board of adjustment who hails from Burlington’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.

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“This last bit with [exhibits] ‘3,’ ‘4’ and ‘M’ looking exactly the same, down to the same photocopy fold, makes me want to dismiss the evidence,” he told the rest of the board.

Heineman nevertheless added that, even if the documents weren’t under suspicion, the appellant would have to demonstrate the property’s continuous use as a boarding house, which he didn’t think had been done. The questionable authenticity of certificate was, likewise, a mere nail in the coffin to board member Mark Kennedy, who felt that Andrews hadn’t shown that the property was approved for use as a boarding house when his family acquired it.

“The history of the [property’s] zoning does not indicate that the use of the property was permitted at this time in its history,” he said. “In purchasing properties in the interest of running a business, would business prudence suggest that you look at a document that has potentially aged and that zoning changes in a city of this size.”

In the end, Kennedy and Heineman joined the 4-to-1 vote to deny the property owner’s appeal along with the board’s chairman Robert Giles II and alternate Dean Rainey. Alternate Charles Beasley cast the lone vote against the motion.

During its meeting on Tuesday, the board took no action on Andrews’ other pending appeal regarding 504 West Webb Avenue. Although this case had been on the board’s meeting agenda, its members agreed to postpone the matter at the behest of Amanda Holdierne, another attorney for Andrews Property.

Holdierne ultimately stuck around for an hour or so of the subsequent hearing on 614 Maple Avenue, but slipped out of the room before the revelation of the fake zoning certificates for that property as well as the one on Webb Avenue.

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