Judge fines city man over repairs

Posted: December 4, 2012

The Winchester Star

A judge ordered Martin Gavis, owner of this house at 414 S. Braddock St., to pay a fine of $450. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — A Winchester General District Court judge said Monday that she empathized with a city man who says he’s trying to rebuild his home on his own following a devastating fire.

But at the end of an hour-long trial, she concluded that Martin Gavis should pay $450 in fines for failing to remedy three specific problems in a timely manner.

Judge Amy B. Tisinger found in favor of the City of Winchester in its case against Gavis. A city building official cited him on Aug. 12 for peeling paint, missing boards and missing roof tiles at the home at 414 S. Braddock St.

Tisinger told Gavis he has 10 days to appeal the decision.

He currently is appealing a November General District Court ruling related to vehicles on the property, from which he operates Marty’s Used Cars.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome of the case,” City Attorney Tony Williams said afterward. “I think the judge made the proper ruling.”

Gavis, who represented himself at the proceeding, declined comment.

The Gavis home was damaged on July 29, 1984, when an arsonist set fire to the structure, and most of the alleged violations stem from that event.

Williams said that in July 2008, at the completion of a case regarding seven code violations, Gavis paid a fine and committed in writing to abate the problems within a year. The city attorney provided a copy of that agreement as evidence.

However, Gavis said during his closing argument that he was never in court for those violations, had never seen the agreement Williams put into evidence and could not read the signature on the document.

David Parker, a city code compliance inspector, provided photographs of the house from that 2007-08 case and taken over the following years and on Monday. He said that based on the photos and his observations over the years, the three problems for which the citations were issued on Aug. 12 have never been corrected.

“It’s in the same condition,” Parker said. “In fact, it looks like the condition might be worse.”

He also said city officials had worked with Gavis for years in an attempt to get him to bring his home into compliance.

Parker added that three different building permits Gavis received to do repair work on the home were deemed to have expired for “non-performance of work.” The latest was revoked in a letter dated Feb. 22, 2012, that was provided as evidence.

Gavis asked Parker where he was when he took the most recent photos. He replied that he was on a neighboring property and on a sidewalk and used a telephoto lens to get close-up images of the structure.

Gavis later unsuccessfully contended that Parker only is allowed to take photos from public property, according to City Code.

In his defense, Gavis testified that the home was gutted in the 1984 blaze and that city officials at the time recommended that he tear what remained down. He opted to repair the structure himself and said he’s been working on it for years, but his work has been slowed by difficulty finding certain materials and health problems.

“I’ve had six strokes,” he said. “I don’t have the energy to work 20 hours a day on it anymore.”

He told the court that a new roof was installed on the home, that he’s recently acquired some hard-to-find slate tiles for his roof and is having new porch columns made at a West Virginia woodshop.

“I might not be fixing what the citywants fixed in the fashion that the citywants it fixed,” he said.

He also submitted photos that he said showed work that has been done.

Under questioning by Williams, Gavis said he could not recall when the fire occurred, even when asked specifically if it was in 1984.

Williams asked if it had been more than 10 years, and Gavis replied, “Yes, probably.” When asked if it had been more than 15 years, Gavis indicated that he did not know.

In his closing argument, Williams said the violations are an ongoing problem and the city could cite and fine Gavis every 10 days for failure to comply. He said officials had worked with Gavis in hopes that he would complete the repairs.

“We’re to the point that we realize that no matter how hard the city tries to work with him,” Williams said, “those repairs are not going to be made.”

Gavis closed by saying that he’s working “in good faith” on the sections of the home most important to him and will not hire a contractor to work on it.

“I’m doing my house the way I want to do it,” he said. “I don’t think I’m guilty of the crimes they accuse me of, and I don’t think I should be fined for it.”

Tisinger reviewed photo evidence provided by both parties for about five minutes before disagreeing with the homeowner.

She said she understands how difficult it is to recover from a fire because she’s been the victim of one herself. However, she said the code issues have been “ongoing for many years.”

The judge said the violation notices state that Gavis had 10 days to correct the problems, and that the city could have fined him continually for being out of compliance.

“Rather than paying fines,” Tisinger said, “I would rather that you be putting money into your house and getting it up to date, and I think the city would prefer that, too.”

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com