When you wake to the sound of a Sunday-morning demolition you might wonder whether the landlord has a permit for that work. But when your landlord is Dr. Stephen Copen you can rest assured: of course he has no permit! We remembered this lesson when the sledgehammer-and-pickaxe demolition commenced at 8 a.m. That must mean another Copen low-budget, under-the-radar job should meet an untimely end with a stop-work order.
The problems at 201 South Reeves Drive have been festering for months. Brickwork at the property is literally coming apart at the seems. Dry mortar allows bricks to dislodge from stair treads and the retaining wall that encloses several mature trees on the Charleville side is losing its integrity. Under pressure the wall is bulging outward to create an obvious hazard just feet from the sidewalk.
We informed the city as much in a complaint earlier this summer:
Both the Reeves and Charleville walls are deformed and there is loose mortar on both walls. Bricks can be removed by hand. Likewise the brick stairs on the Charleville side are unstable: bricks on the stair may be dislodged by hand or foot.
A case was opened in June but we heard no more about it. Aware that some code complaints languish, we followed up in mid-August but got the cold shoulder from code enforcement. “File a public records request” the officer advised. (We did and we are waiting to hear more.)
At the same time the case must have proceeded to a notice to comply because today at 8 a.m. we saw laborers get to work demolishing the retaining wall. On a Sunday not less and, according to the online record, without a permit either for the demolition or for work occurring after hours (a weekend). Of course we checked!
(No permit was on file for 201 South Reeves according to the city’s online database.)
While Municipal Code subsection 9-1-107(B)(1)(B) exempts retaining walls under four feet from requiring a building permit, the code would seem to require a demolition permit for the retaining wall:
Demolition Of Buildings And Structures: It shall be unlawful for any person to demolish any building or structure, or portion thereof, within the city without first obtaining a permit from the building official. -- B.H.M.C. 91-1-107(G)
In this instance the retaining wall is integral to the building — not merely a landscaping feature.
Pulling a city permit is more than merely checking a box. A permit ensures that work is done with the knowledge of the city; that it is conducted safely; and that a licensed and insured contractor is on the job. None of those conditions was satisfied this morning.
At 201 South Reeves we saw laborers busting bricks two feet from the sidewalk without so much as a cone or some caution tape to alert pedestrians. On a block busy with pedestrian activity Copen’s laborers were wielding a sledgehammer, pickaxe, and even a machete to hack away at the wall and the greenery behind it.
This job was happening while City Hall slept a weekend slumber. So no code enforcement officer could be expected to be on duty. Even a call to the cops about this unpermitted work produced a long wait and no action until we called a second time. The unhelpful assessment: “Officers saw no violation.” OK then!
The BHPD assessment was incorrect, in our view, so we got in touch with a city official on his off-hours. Before long there was a building inspector on the scene and a stop work order was issued. Thankfully we will see no more swinging of a machete near the sidewalk (at least for today). However Dr. Copen’s tenants (and neighbors) will have look at this butchered retaining wall until whenever Copen is ready to pull his permits.
The integrity of the retaining wall appears even more compromised than before.
In the meantime let’s consider what we have learned. First, we learned how not to replace a retaining wall. The correct way to rebuild it is to pull a permit for the work; close the sidewalk with a second permit; post the required signs; and hire contractors licensed and insured to do the work. We’re no builders but….
Second, persistence is key! Code enforcement cases get closed prematurely and not infrequently without compliance. Always follow up with the assigned officer on a prior complaint. Call (310) 285–1119 to find out which officer is responsible.
Third, as Reagan said of the Soviets, “trust but verify.” Tenants are in no cold war with code enforcement but we have been told in other instances that a permit exists when we know there is none. And we have been advised that no code violation exists when we can plainly see that it does. So we don’t necessarily take the first answer we get as the gospel. (Get in touch if you have a question about your complaint.)
And finally, some scofflaws won’t ever learn! Copen’s properties routinely violate provisions of the municipal code and when it comes time for a fix he won’t pull a permit unless he must, as when a stop-work order has been issued. At least that’s our experience.
Was Dr. Copen seeking to avoid city scrutiny by working on a Sunday? Or was he getting work done on-the-cheap and without the added cost of permits? Probably both. But we can’t know what’s in a man’s heart.