Fate of old garage lies in legal limbo

Paul Clark
It could be early spring before a judge renders a decision on the fate of the old garage on Grovestone Road.

The fate of a dilapidated building near the Ingles warehouse may be decided early next year.

 Attorneys representing Black Mountain and the owners of the property made opposing arguments before Judge William H. Coward in Buncombe County Superior Court on Oct. 23. The judge told the two attorneys to submit briefs encapsulating their arguments, something that should happen within two months, town attorney Ron Sneed said.

The judge can render a decision from the briefs or have the case scheduled for trial in civil court.

The building, which was once a truck garage, has been vacant for years. Its roof has fallen in, weeds have grown up around it and parts of it have been painted with graffiti. For nearly three years, town administrators have been telling owners Rick and Teresa Watson of Swannanoa to fix it up or tear it down.

The Watsons bought the abandoned building in summer 2008 for $150,000, Buncombe County property records in the file indicate. The property’s 2015 assessed value was $62,700, though the building has no value now, the town’s building inspector has said. The town’s zoning board of adjustment last year said the Watsons bought the property to facilitate sewer service to another property they own.

The Watsons, who could not be reached for comment, noted the building, at the corner of U.S. 70 and Grovestone Road, was full of rubbish, broken windows and a collapsed roof, their attorney argued before the judge Oct. 23 (the attorney, Jeffrey Stahl, did not return a request for comments by press deadline last week).

Rick Watson applied for and received a building permit Jan. 7, 2014 to repair the roof and build a fence at a cost of $30,000, according to the town’s case file in the Black Mountain zoning office. On Jan. 12, 2015, town manager Matt Settlemyer wrote the Watsons that it “does not appear that repairs have actually commenced” on the property. For the building permit to stay valid, “observable work” had to begin within 30 days, Settlemyer said.

In an undated response to Settlemyer’s letter, the Watsons stated that Dan Cordell, the town’s building inspector, had inspected the property on Jan. 2, 2015 and granted them a one-year extension on their permit. “We do not feel we are being treated the same as other property owners in Black Mountain for reasons unbeknownst to us,” they wrote. “It gives us reason to believe that there is some ulterior motive behind your letter.”

It may not look like work is going on, the Watsons wrote, but they had removed “tons” of debris from the inside – something necessary before any structural repairs could begin, they stated.

On Sept. 14, 2015, town aldermen voted to adopt a nonresidential building maintenance ordinance. The next month, on Feb. 17, 2016, Cordell on instructions from the zoning board heard the complaint the town had brought against the Watsons that cited a violation of the town’s nonresidential maintenance code. In his findings, Cordell said the town told the couple on Jan. 6, 2016 that they had 15 days to bring the building into compliance with the code. On Jan. 27, the town inspected and notice no improvements, Cordell found.

He concluded the building was dilapidated and dangerous – a decision the Watsons appealed on March 28, 2016. On April 21 of that year, the zoning board heard testimony and sent Cordell’s order back to him to note any work the Watsons had done to bring the building to code.

In his May 10, 2016 findings of fact, Cordell noted that the required “no trespassing” signs had been put up and that the building permit was still valid. Some demolition had taken place and construction plans to address the “alleged violations” existed, he noted. Cordell gave the Watsons 180 days to demolish the building or bring it up to code by removing decayed material and covering the roof, doors and windows.

On June 3, 2016, Stahl appealed Cordell’s decision to the zoning board, contending once again that ulterior motives                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    were behind the town’s decision “to continue to pursue the Watsons.” Stahl argued in the appeal that “the use of the property constituting the alleged violations” existed prior to the town’s adoption of the nonresidential ordinance and so should be grandfathered in, or exempted from its requirements.

“It makes no sense to force someone to replace windows or shingles on a structure during a construction site where demolition has not been completed,” Stahl wrote in the appeal. The town adopted an ordinance “to specifically address” the Watsons’ property, he stated. The town was coercing the Watsons to “completely reconstruct” the building under the guise of maintenance – “an abuse of the town’s power,” Stahl contended.

On July 21, 2016, the zoning board heard the appeal. On Aug. 5 of that year, it unanimously upheld Cordell’s order requiring the Watsons to get on with the work or bring the building down. The board gave them another 180 days. The Watsons appealed in September, saying through their attorney the building presented no danger to public health and the work that the town required was “undefined and unreasonable.”