Friday, January 15, 2010

LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (10th increment)

Nothing is ever easily done when one is dealing with government agencies. And that holds true even when the government is a motley collection of a few small-town pols. In our town, in order to do anything to one's own real estate property, one needs a permit. Most of the time, you cannot get that permit without a variance if your building is over thirty years old, or about how long the town has had a zoning code. The process can quickly become ridiculous and unnavigable by all but the most determined engineers and architects. Having lived through it, I think I finally understand why people become crazed anti-government wackos who live in compounds and shoot at FBI agents. Government red tape really blows and can make a maniac out of a Buddhist monk in no time.

We were incorrectly advised by the town's zoning code enforcement officer at the time we bought the bar. He told us that we would have to open a bar that served liquor, within six months of the bar's closing or lose the grandfather status. Buildings that predate the zoning codes are "grandfathered" in, meaning that what is currently in operation (business-wise, usually) is allowed but anything new would then have to conform to current zoning requirements. Obviously we weren't going to sell liquor but when I asked him if we could open a coffee bar, he looked at me sternly (over the phone) and told me unequivocally no. How about a wine bar? Not only did he say no, but he was clearly getting pissed. I gave up at that point for I knew I needed to keep him on my side or at least not despising me.

I believed what he said, since who else would know about the zoning code but the zoning code enforcement officer. Right? So we let the six-month deadline elapse since there was no way we were going to keep the liquor flowing. A year or two later, this particular fellow retired from his post. It was only when we hired our engineer a few years after that I learned I was given entirely incorrect information. It turned out that in our town, bars are not permitted. Restaurants, however, are allowed to serve alcoholic beverages but food must also be served. Ah, it then became clear why there was the most revolting "kitchen" behind the bar that I ever was unlucky enough to see (and I've lived in various NYC apartments). I hope anyone who ate—or drank for that matter—in that bar was up on his or her tetanus shots.

So, in effect, we could easily have ditched the liquor and kept the business open selling food, thereby saving thousands of dollars, dozens of hours, and mountains of grief to get the permit we'd need to open our general store. For fuck's sake, you can't even depend on the freaking zoning code enforcement officer to give you correct zoning information. How can he enforce the zoning code if he doesn't know it? I guess he just made it up as he went along. He owes us thousands at this point.

Oh, right, the general store—it's what Dean and I always wanted to have when we visited places like Cape Cod, where his father used to live. Our favorite one was fittingly in a town named Brewster and it was an old-fashioned store, with sawdust on the floor, a vintage peanut-roasting machine, penny candy, and dusty antiques for sale. Having a store like that was Dean's dream.

My idea of our eventual store was cleaner, with more of a Starbucks sensibility—Italian espresso machines, and Murano glass light pendants. Still, I thought we could meet somewhere in the middle and produce a charming little shop. And it would have to be very little, since we only had about 600 square feet or so on the main floor.

Luckily, Dean and I agree on interior design. The floor, for example: hardwood with a dark rustic finish. The ceiling? Probably copper-plated tin tiles. We'd use the old bar as a counter and we'd try to find antique—preferably tiger oak—display cases. Dean usually lets me choose the paint colors (smart man), so there'd be no issue there. Our design inclinations are the same 99 percent of the time.

But before we could start appointing the place, there were piddling things to do, such as rewiring and replumbing the entire space, and electricians and plumbers have this pesky habit of wanting to be paid—and handsomely—for their services. This job was going to be pricey. My septic guy had cut off the water supply to the first floor, in an attempt to save us money at the time we addressed the septic failures of the previous owners, an open litigation when we purchased the property. That would have to be dealt with. But the biggest problem for us remained the commercial building status in a residential zone.

That obstacle seemed to go away when the town decided to rezone what they called their "gateway" areas—areas that were close to the town's borders. Since our property was in such a region, we were rezoned to a commercial status. But as always in our lives, there was a catch. Retail was not one of the permitted uses. Ironically, restaurants were a zoned use but the health department would not allow us to open one since we had limited septic capability and we were across from a DEP reservoir. Okay, so we just needed a variance for retail, no biggie.

Oh, but it was indeed a tortuous route (and torturous, for that matter), as our engineer/architect explained to us. First, we had to go to the town board and have it deny us; then, it was on to the planning board, to get its refusal. Finally, to the zoning board to get the last denial we needed before we had to begin the process again. And this multiple-denial process is perfectly acceptable as the normal required channel. I mean, none of them find anything wrong with making property owners go through ridiculous, costly and duplicative measures to obtain a permit. I would better deal with these constraints if the codes prevented the big guys from really violating the community. BUT THEY DON'T!! The big developers automatically get variances from the towns, and if it's too circuitous a route, well then the town will simply alter the code to suit their favorite sons. Consequently, the only ones who suffer from these absurd zoning regs are the very people they are ostensibly trying to protect—the regular Joes. Like us.

My behavior at the board meetings left much to be desired. I mean, it would be excellent behavior if my intention was to piss people off and make them dislike me. But we needed something from them. At the first one, I got up to speak when our request was presented. My voice, though starting out politely, became more strident as the minutes wore on. These board members were so idiotic and infuriating, I couldn't stand it and began to just vent about everything that frustrated me about the town. Dean and James, our architect, realized instinctively that yelling at people is not a good way to ingratiate yourself into their good graces. I knew I had lost my cool, though. Without even being told to do so, I willingly banished myself from further hearings and allowed Dean to take over. He has the inexplicable ability to tolerate stupidity much more calmly than I. How does he do it? Maybe he employs his husbandly talent of not listening to a word they say. However he did it, I'm proud of him, for he was able to see the process through to the end. James was being paid to suffer the fools, and in any case, he is of a very serene nature which no doubt serves him well in this circus of morons.

In short, we spent nearly two years and about seven thousand dollars, first to get permission to fix a corroded overhang that threatened to fall on someone's head (but didn't meet setback requirements), and then the prized retail permit. By the time we completed the process , we were flat-out broke and couldn't finish the work needed to open the freaking store.

With not even a shoe-string budget to go on, we had an enormous amount of work left to complete. Even if we were flush with funds, it would be a challenge, as the to-do list was daunting. All of the plumbing and HVAC had yet to be done. The wiring had to be replaced throughout the space. The firebox in the fireplace was broken and needed replacement, in addition to other maintenance. One of the workers that we hired for something or other was a bar patron and told us the drunken customers broke it one cold night when they tried to shove something very large into it to start a fire. How nice, I wish I could kill them all right about now. The bar was around so long and was so mystifyingly popular that every worker we hired for whatever usually had a few stories to tell of the glory days. Yeah, yeah, get a life already, people.

And the kitchen I mentioned a few paragraphs ago? There were drawers held together with old, curling duct tape. The duct tape was generously slathered with skins of greased dust. Things were hanging by splintered wood and there was a thick and viscous coat of decades of cooking slime on every surface. There was a single stove, the kind you find in a cheap studio apartment, a refrigerator that doubled as a laboratory, growing all kinds of life one might generally find in a petri dish, and a few decrepit shelves housing some dry goods, long past their expiration dates. Everywhere were brownish yellow stains from years of tobacco smoke. It literally took a year to eradicate the nasty smell of the place. Until we did, I continually felt as if I were on enemy territory. Only once the odor was gone and new materials were in, did I feel at peace and didn't have to shower immediately upon leaving.

We ripped out the kitchen right away, and by we I mean Dean. He also removed all of the fire-damaged joists and insulation. Right smack in the middle of the place, dead center actually, was an elevated platform, about 4x4, that housed the ladies' room, and I use the term ladies loosely obviously. This room was as disgusting as you might imagine but there was one interesting aspect about it that Dean noticed right away. The rear wall of it was the original exterior wall of the building. Apparently when it was first built, the footprint of the building was much smaller. At some point, it was expanded and a second floor was added, as evidenced by the chimney, which starts out as stone and turns into brick a couple of feet above the roofline. We thought about leaving the old wall for historic purposes but in the end, simply could not make it work and it was demolished.

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