Illegal electrical business is being pushed through, neighbors say

Decision delayed: Building inspector says business may continue as an 'existing nonconforming structure'

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  • Planning Board Chair Don Serotta talks to a resident at a meeting last month (Photo by Frances Ruth Harris)

  • Ryan Fellenzer, engineer for the electrical business at 191 Lehigh, at a planning board meeting in April (Photo by Frances Ruth Harris)

  • The building inspector's letter, page 1

  • The building inspector's letter, page 2

  • The site plan for 191 Lehigh Avenue, Chester


Cindy and Tom Becker wrote a letter to the planning board dated April 16 that recounted the following timeline, which they said “we felt compelled to share”:
On Sept. 6, 2017, we submitted a complaint about the illegal activity. Our neighbors have done the same. No stop work order or violation issued to this property owner. Jim Farr created an illegal letter trying to grandfather this property to previous zoning. This type of operation was not permitted in 1974 with O-M zoning. The only thing that met the requirements at the time in the O-M zone was the lot size of the property, never the use. The Town Board directed the applicant to the planning board for site plan approval.
On Nov. 29, 2017 a second written complaint was given to the building inspector after the entire property was covered by electrical contracting supplies.
On Dec. 7, 2017, 191 Lehigh Avenue was in violation for operating a business without a site plan approval. In the violation letter it stated the property is a single family residence ONLY.
On Jan. 8, 2018 the building inspector issued a letter that the violation for this property was cleared and now in compliance. They are not in compliance.
To this day they continue to operate illegally at 191 Lehigh. The garage and extra out building (3 of the buildings have no building permits to even be there) are loaded with electrical contracting supplies. In the morning vans load up with these supplies. In addition cars, vans and trucks continue parking in the yard which has been turned into a parking lot. They are operating a business office from this location with many workers there 5 to 6 days a week. It is not even being used as a residence at this time.
On April 19, the Beckers wrote a second letter of complaint addressed to Farr: “The letter that was issued on your letterhead on Aug. 31, 2017 was not a legal letter. Under the OM code, the existing non-conforming use was the residence that was there at the time of zoning being created. The residence was the non-conforming use and continues to be a residence which is what your Dec. 7, 2017 violation letter states the property is a single family residence ONLY. All recent sales of this property are listed as residential also further substantiating the permitted and continue use of this property as RESIDENTIAL. Nothing in town zoning allows for this property to be before the planning board for site plan approval.”

By Frances Ruth Harris

— One year ago, a Chester property owner was denied a variance. But he — and the three owners who came after — still managed to transform the site into a business with offices, stored electrical supplies, parked commercial vehicles, and several dumpsters. The entire yard at 191 Lehigh was turned into a parking lot.

Still, the business has continued to operate, and was even sold recently to a new owner, the fourth new owner in a year, who continues to seek approval for the site plan from the town planning board. The project was on the planning board's agenda for its Wednesday, May 16 meeting, but plans have since been changed. The applicant, Joel Schreiber, "has been rescheduled," the agenda now says.

The town's building inspector, James Farr, recommends that the business continue.

In a letter to Supervisor Alex Jamieson dated Monday, May 14, he writes: "I have determined that the structure and property constitute an existing nonconforming structure and use and thus the use may continue and that the property need not conform to the current minimum setback requirements in the I Zone so long as there have been no additions to the structure."

Farr said a professional office had been established on the property before 1974, and that the office continued operating until the present date. The neighbors say this is not true.

Farr notes that the current minimum lot size for a professional office in the I Zone is 5 acres. "However," he writes, "in 1974 the premises was located in an 0-M Zoning District which permitted the professional office use and required a minimum of one acre in bulk area."

A year of noise and trashFor a year, neighbors have been complaining about trash on site, industrial noise shattering the peace of a residential neighborhood, and the coming and going of too many cars and trucks.

On May 18, 2017, the town's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) denied the property owner's original request, which asked for contractor storage, parking for 7 to 8 vehicles, and extra structures on the property, intended for use as a storage yard. The site is 1.2 acres, not the five required for these uses.

Tom and Cindy Becker, who live near the business, say 191 Lehigh warranted a stop-work order long ago. Cindy says no one at town hall knew about the new owner last month when she went to ask.

The Beckers say 191 Lehigh should not be in front of the planning board and should instead be sent back to the ZBA.

Christopher Longo wrote on Facebook, "This is absolutely unreal how this is allowed to go on....When is it going to stop? This is corruption at its finest!"

The property, which has had four owners in the past year, was recently sold to Joel Schrieber. Planning board chair Don Serotta said the change of ownership requires a new Environmental Assessment Form.

Ryan Fellenzer, engineer for Werzberger Global Lighting — the name of the business at one point of its history — said the use of the property changed to office building with electrical supplies stored inside a storage building on the property. Nothing would be stored outside, Fellenzer said.

Bales of electric wiring are currently being stored outside under blue tarps.

Serotta said the site use must be based on a pre-existing use, considering the site is little more than an acre.

“Is the use they are proposing consistent?” Serotta asked.

Town attorney Dave Donovan said a clear statement saying so is needed on town letterhead from Farr, whose first letter was submitted on letterhead from his own business, Farr Engineering.

Donovan said he wanted the letter on town letterhead, and could not otherwise recommend that the board act. Farr's second letter was submitted Monday.

Can town manage the Greens?On Facebook, several residents noted that if the town could not manage this one small property, how will it make sure the major new housing subdivision, Greens of Chester, now under construction follows the rules?

Kristi Kerns Greco agreed with Cindy Becker's complaint that the business was allowed to operate for more than a year.

"If the current inspector can’t handle this one issue, how in the world is he going to be able to handle the Greens?" Greco wrote. "He’s clearly not going to be able to do so!! Has the Town looked who they would hire to help with keeping the Greens in check? Let us all learn from this — current inspector is not able to handle this one property!! We need to all keep the Town board's feet to the fire here and at the Greens!!"

Mary Conway Luciana echoed that sentiment: "How can we trust building inspector & engineer to make sure Greens of Chester follow all codes when they can’t control just one parcel???"

Related stories "Residents riled by trash, noise":

"Two sides disagree: Is electrical contracting business illegal?"

"Greens will 'cripple' school district, county executive says":

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the rescheduled application review.

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