Citations vs. city homeowner upheld

Posted: May 23, 2013

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — An appeals panel Wednesday upheld a building official’s findings that a fire-damaged home is unsafe, and two of its members encouraged city officials to condemn it.

At the end of an hour-long hearing in the council chambers at Rouss City Hall, members of the Winchester Board of Building Code Appeals voted 4-0 to approve a resolution supporting citations issued against Martin Gavis for the condition of his home at 414 S. Braddock St.

Before going through it point-by-point to assure that all were in agreement, the board members briefly debated whether to add to the prepared resolution supporting city building official John Knight’s findings.

They considered adding statements that the city has been very patient with Gavis and encouraging action to condemn the home because it is structurally deficient.

“The building is very, very unsafe,” Chairman Charles Worthington said, “and he should not be able to live there.”

Gavis can appeal the board’s decision to the State Building Code Technical Review Board. He must file his appeal within 21 days from the receipt of a certified letter from the city of the board’s decision.

Aaron Grisdale, the city’s director of zoning and inspections, declined to comment after the hearing about what the city’s next step would be regarding the Gavis home or whether condemnation would be considered.

The house was severely damaged in 1984 after being set on fire. During his testimony Wednesday, Gavis said the arsonist was a juvenile accused of setting another fire who had escaped from city custody.

Parts of the home have not been repaired in the nearly 29 years since that blaze, and city officials said the resulting deterioration is creating structural problems that render the building unsafe.

“The structure,” Grisdale said, “continues to deteriorate in the absence of repairs.”

Among the issues Knight cited in rendering the building an unsafe structure were the collapse of a 100-square-foot section of a load-bearing wall, missing or loose bricks, and roof damage severe enough to prevent it from protecting the structure. Photographs of the damage were shown to board members.

Knight said the partially collapsed wall section is “a clear violation of the Virginia Maintenance Code.”

Gavis testified that he’s been working on repairs for some time, often having to special order materials for the house, which was built in 1881.

He claimed his efforts have been hindered due to contractors not completing work they were hired to do, building permits not being provided in a timely manner and because Knight has revoked building permits at inopportune times.

“Y’all got me at your mercy,” he said, “telling me it has to be done on the left hand and on the right hand not giving me a building permit. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”

Knight said Gavis has been issued “two or three building permits over the years.” He said they either expired or were revoked for lack of progress or for failing to call for inspections.

City Attorney Tony Williams summarized the city’s case. He said the photographs of the home “speak for themselves” and that Gavis presented no evidence to support his claim that at least part of Knight’s findings were wrong.

Williams noted that a report prepared by Richard Ruckman of Ruckman Engineering — a local firm hired by the city to inspect the Gavis home — stated that repairs “must occur as soon as possible to prevent a collapse of the roof and/or an overall collapse of the north end of the structure.”

Gavis left the council chambers immediately after hearing testimony was closed, opting not to stay for deliberations and the vote.

Board member Richard Nelson quickly summarized his thoughts on the issue.

“There’s no question or doubt,” he said, “that the building is in violation of the Virginia Maintenance Code.”

Gavis and the city have been battling over numerous issues for months. He has pending appeals of one criminal and two civil cases he lost in Winchester General District Court.

In March, his appeal of a zoning violation citation for improperly operating his home-based business, Marty’s Used Cars, as a wholesale enterprise was dismissed in Winchester Circuit Court.

Attending the meeting at Rouss City Hall were Chairman Charles Worthington and board members John Dick, Richard Nelson and Richard Ridgell. Board member Christopher Molden was absent.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at