City seeks full access to inspect Gavis home

Posted: July 25, 2013

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — The city has filed a motion seeking full access to inspect a home it has deemed a hazard, and is requesting permission to make emergency repairs or demolish all or part of it to make the property safe.

The filing of a motion for an emergency temporary injunction Wednesday afternoon in the city’s ongoing battle with homeowner Martin Gavis was expected. Last week, Judge John E. Wetsel Jr. gave the city until today to file the motion.

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Aug. 15. Gavis, who lives in the home with his wife, Claudette, is represented in the case by Phillip S. Griffin II.

Winchester officials have tangled with Gavis for years over the condition of his fire-damaged home at 414 S. Braddock St. Their efforts increased in March, when a 100-square-foot section of the north wall collapsed, and City Council has declared the structure a public nuisance.

To support his claim that the city needs access to the home and permission to remedy the unsafe conditions, City Attorney Tony Williams submitted a report dated July 24 from Tim Painter of Painter-Lewis, a city engineering firm.

He wrote that he was not permitted access to the property, so his inspection was limited to a perimeter review. However, he also referenced previous reports by Ruckman Engineering and Structural Concepts that involved some interior analysis.

Painter, whose curriculum vitae indicates that he has been used as an expert witness by Griffin on multiple occasions, wrote that he had five safety concerns if the Gavis home were to collapse:

More than 2,000 pounds of masonry material per linear foot could fall in a collapse because the masonry walls are 13 inches thick and up to 24 feet tall. Debris could be strewn onto adjoining properties, and the southern portion of the home could be damaged if the northern section collapsed and be fatal to any occupants.

“The ripple effect of a collapse could cause a collapse in an area that is generally sound,” he wrote. “The people that occupy this area could be fatally harmed in the event of a catastrophic failure.”

Utility lines to the house, which include a gas line, would rupture in the event of a collapse, he wrote, and sparks from downed electric lines or flying debris could ignite the gas “and cause an extremely dangerous condition to the general public and surrounding properties in and around this [c]ity block.”

The energy from a collapse could down trees on the property, which could cause damage to adjacent properties and/or harm people in the vicinity.

Heavy winds could turn unattached slate shingles or metal elements of the roofing system into projectiles that could injure members of the public.

Mary White O’Neal’s Dance Workshop at 410 S. Braddock St. could be damaged by flying debris or, depending on its structural stability, vibrations in the event of a collapse, potentially putting the structure and its occupants at risk.

The dance studio, Williams later noted, is only 23 feet from the Gavis home.

Painter indicated that recommended repairs to the house should begin immediately because of the potential for it to collapse.

“The longer that these repairs are not performed,” he wrote, “the greater the risk of this collapse. ... Personal injury and property damage are real concerns if the structural issues with this property are not properly addressed.”

In his motion, Williams wrote that no complete assessment of the house has been performed because some areas could not be accessed.

As an example, he indicated that drywall has been placed over portions of walls that could be heavily damaged from water or fire. The Ruckman Engineering report noted that it was impossible to determine what, if any, repairs had been made in that area.

Williams wrote that the city thinks the structure is “in imminent danger of collapse” and is a danger to its occupants, adjacent property owners and others nearby if it were to fall.

Citing one of Wetsel’s written opinions, Williams stated that to grant the temporary injunction the court must find that the city is likely to win the case on its merits, determine that it likely would be irreparably harmed if the injunction were declined, weigh the potential harm to the Gavises if the request is granted, and assess the public interest.

“‘The party seeking relief must show that the alleged harm is imminent, and not merely speculative or potential,’” Williams quoted Wetsel as writing in that case.

In claiming that the city is likely to win the case, Williams noted that the home has been deemed unsafe by both a city building official and an appeals panel. He also quoted from the three reports — including the Structural Concepts report commissioned by Gavis — that determined that the house is not structurally stable.

“[N]othing has been produced by the property owner ... to suggest that the property in question constitutes anything but an unsafe structure and is in imminent danger of collapse,” Williams wrote.

He further claimed that the city, the Gavises and Winchester residents will be harmed if the motion is denied and the house collapses because it could cause property damage, injury and/or death. He argued that granting the injunction would protect the Gavises from potential harm.

Finally, Williams wrote that the a collapse could result in damage to adjacent properties. While the Gavises have a right to enjoy their property, their rights do not supercede the rights of others to be safe on their properties.

Gavis, he noted, has had 29 years to make the house structurally sound and has failed to do so.

An arsonist started the fire that ravaged the Gavis home in 1984, and some of that damage remains unrepaired 29 years later. Williams wrote in previous court documents that city officials have written 23 code-violation notices and 34 civil citations for the property in that time.

The structure is the only remaining, intact example of Second Empire architecture in Winchester. Preservation Virginia placed it on its 2010 list of the most endangered historic sites in the state.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com