Go Ahead, Complain

City: Don’t Wait For A Wild Party To Report Zoning Code Scofflaws

Posted: October 3, 2012

HARRISONBURG — Policing neighbors who behave badly is not within the job description of city zoning officials.

But if a property owner is violating city code by allowing too many people to live under the same roof, they spring into action — as long as someone makes them aware of a problem.

“If you let one house slide, then another house wants to do it, and then another one and another one,” Harrisonburg Zoning Administrator Alison Banks said. “We’re always telling people, don’t wait until [neighbors] have a party.”

The city investigates possible violations of the zoning code only when residents call it in.

The city’s occupancy code was the hot topic at Monday’s Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, featuring the homeowner of 33 Port Republic Road pleading for more time to evict his tenants and comply with the law.

After fielding a complaint in August, a city inspector found that four college-aged men lived at the Port Republic Road house. The area is zoned R-1 single-family residential, meaning an owner not living on the premises can rent to no more than two unrelated people or a family.

The owner, Thomas Croessman, lives in Virginia Beach. He said only two men are on the lease.

Croessman, a 2011 James Madison University graduate, appealed the city’s decision, writing in a letter that student housing was an appropriate use of the house. Not until Monday, though, did he seem to realize how much trouble his tenants had caused the neighborhood.

At the meeting, attended by about 20 people who opposed the appeal, residents spoke of cars parked in the yard, intoxicated people gathered on the property, loud music late at night and even a couch that was burned in the backyard.

“It has been an absolute bombshell to the area,” said Andrew Graves, speaking on behalf of family members who live near the home.

In contrast to his letter, Croessman told the board that he appealed the violation not to argue with the zoning ordinance, but because he needed more time to remove his tenants.

“I want them out completely,” he said.

Croessman sought an extension through December — instead of the Nov. 1 deadline he faces — to comply with the occupancy code.

The board denied the appeal by a 3-0 vote, with two members absent.

Board member MuAwia Da’Mes said he didn’t believe Croessman’s assertion that only two people were paying him rent. While saying it was an assumption, Da’Mes said he cannot imagine paying a mortgage on the property with only two people renting it.

“You went into this planning [to break the law],” he said, “which is unfortunate.”

Croessman, who says he wants to sell the house and not rent it, has until Nov. 1 to remedy the matter or face a Class 1 misdemeanor charge, which could lead to a fine of as much as $2,500. He could also appeal the board’s decision to Rockingham County Circuit Court.

After the vote, Croessman said, “I have no problem with complying.”

In 2011 and through September of this year, the city had received 37 complaints about possible occupancy violations. Only four were determined to be actual violations, while four others are still under investigation.

Banks said many concerns turn out to be unfounded because inspectors find that extended family are living at a house. The state defines family as anyone related through blood, marriage or adoption.

Croessman’s house was the first violation of 2012, and he also is the only homeowner to appeal in the last two years.

David Driver, who lives about a tenth of a mile away from the home on Hillcrest Drive, contacted the city about the house this year. Without Driver’s complaint, zoning officials would have had no reason to investigate.

Banks said that when she researches complaints, she often finds that some houses have actually violated the occupancy code for years.

“[People say], ‘But they were really good neighbors. We don’t care [that] they were breaking the law,’” she said.

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com

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