Chevy Chase woman files lawsuit after lawsuit against her neighbor’s teardown

Chevy Chase, Maryland has experienced a number of discussions over redevelopment including this one-woman “all-out war” against her neighbor’s teardown:

First, in 2009, she sued the town of Chevy Chase in an attempt to block its approval of the Schwartzes’ building permit — but that failed. Then she appealed — and was denied. “I would say Chevy Chase has spent upwards of $50,000 because of Deborah,” Hoffman said. “Not just in legal bills, but in all the staff costs in answering her letters and telephone calls.”Vollmer next filed a similar lawsuit against Montgomery County and lost again. Soon afterward, she watched in horror as the Schwartzes erected a handsome, stone-encrusted house at 7200 44th St. The house, which she excoriated for its size, offers evidence of the neighbors’ clashing lifestyles.

Vollmer drives a Prius. The Schwartzes have a Mercedes. Vollmer prizes rough-hewn back yards with lots of vegetation. The Schwartzes appreciate a more manicured aesthetic. “Some people may question my motives,” Vollmer said. “But what’s happening in this town, these developers, tearing down old homes. I’m standing up for my rights. .?.?. And then this whole thing just kind of evolved” from that.

The dispute’s next evolution occurred in court. Vollmer sued the Schwartzes in Montgomery County Circuit Court — not once, but twice — over arguments involving the shared driveway. She lost both…

“We have had to go to court more than 16 times because of her multiple lawsuits and her behavior,” Schwartz said. “We love our home and our neighborhood, and we can only hope that reason will prevail in the future.”

And there is more here including an arrest for destruction of property, another lawsuit over paving the shared driveway, and a second arrest. In the end, is Vollmer simply standing up for her property rights (and she apparently has the resources and legal training to do so) amidst the bullying of mansionizing new residents or is she a public nuisance against inevitable change and wasting taxpayer money?

One thing this article does not explain: how in the world was the new house approved with a shared driveway? The picture with the story suggests the teardown was built close to the lot line:

Given Vollmer’s behavior, it is not clear this would have solved the issue. But, having a shared driveway could lead to issues even if the new neighbors didn’t build a new large home. Perhaps this is why suburbanites need passive aggressive signs to fight each other rather than lawsuits…

How to get wealthier communities to accept affordable housing

This article discusses two tools to promote affordable housing in wealthier communities: regulations and lawsuits.

But Massachusetts has a work-around: A state statute, called 40B, allows developers to get around exclusionary zoning and build affordable housing in communities where only a small percentage of units are considered affordable. (A few other states have similar policies.) The statute, passed in 1969 and upheld by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court in 1973, has led to the construction of 1,300 developments throughout the state, containing a total of 34,000 units of affordable housing, according to Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, or CHAPA.Projects built under 40B are almost always controversial: The statute was enacted in the first place because most communities outside of big cities didn’t permit multi-family housing, said Ann Verrilli, the director of research at CHAPA. Even with the statute, communities often spend millions of dollars in legal fees to try and stop the projects, Verrilli told me…

The experience of developers trying to build affordable housing in Massachusetts takes on added significance now, as housing advocates wait for a decision on a landmark case in front of the Supreme Court that concerns where low-income housing projects are placed. The case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, arose when a nonprofit housing group sued Texas, arguing that the state primarily distributed tax credits for low-income housing projects in minority-dominated areas. Inclusive Communities argued that doing so perpetuated segregation and violated the Fair Housing Act, which was passed in 1968 to prevent landlords, municipalities, banks and other housing providers from discriminating on the basis of race. The Supreme Court case centers on whether this discrimination has to be intentional in order to be illegal, or whether the Fair Housing Act also seeks to prevent policies that may not be intentionally discriminatory, but that have a “disparate impact” on minorities…

Many affordable housing units in the suburbs are a direct result of court cases, and even enforcement of those programs are lax. In 2009, Westchester County in New York signed a desegregation agreement and agreed to build and market hundreds of apartments for moderate-income minorities after a court found it had misled HUD by applying for funds that it said it would use to integrate housing, and then did the opposite. Four years later, the county had not complied with the provisions.

The shift from discriminatory race-based housing policies to economic ones in the 1960s and 1970s was an important one. I suggest reading David Freund’s Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America. This is the logic still used today: better off residents argue that they worked hard to get to their higher quality of life and that others should have to do the same. But, since race/ethnicity and social class are inextricably linked, keeping out the lower classes through big lots, expensive properties, a lack of apartments, and other methods leads perpetuates residential segregation.

Two other relevant points from this article. First, affordable housing in the suburbs can be done well through good design and not high levels of concentration. Second, given the resistance to such projects as well as design guidelines that are helpful, still nowhere near enough affordable housing has been constructed. In one sense, the foot draggers of wealthy communities are winning because they have slowed down a process started by the courts in the late 1960s (the Gautreaux case) and 1970s (the Mount Laurel case). Plus, the wealthy can move easily if their properties are threatened.

Removing suburban strip clubs using zoning, eminent domain, and lawsuits

The typical suburb doesn’t welcome strip clubs but it can be difficult to remove them:

Kane County Board members voted — twice — to say that’s exactly what they don’t want. Those votes spawned a $16 million lawsuit by the pending new owners of the club. The outcome may determine the future of the strip club or any adult businesses in the county. As others have discovered, limiting an industry protected by the Constitution but rife with criminals, violence and deep pockets can be a long, costly road…

Neighboring DuPage County found Diamonds wasn’t its best friend when strip club owners became interested in an industrial area near the DuPage County Airport in 1999. Before the county even ruled on the zoning use, the would-be owners of the club, Palmetto Properties Inc., sued the county for creating unconstitutional restrictions…

After three years of research, the county crafted a legal defense for buffers by citing fears about strip clubs fueling crime and killing property values and development. The county also shrank the buffer between strip clubs and inaccessible sections of forest preserves, allowing Diamonds to open…

Having robust development has also limited where strip clubs can operate. Every commercial development and residential rooftop pushes areas for strip clubs farther out…

Neither did Bedford Park, a South suburban community of about 600 people, when it tried to block Diaz from opening a strip club within its borders. After more than six years in courtrooms, and about $400,000 in legal fees, the new Ocean Gentlemen’s Club opens this fall.

An interesting back and forth between businesses and suburban communities. A few quick thoughts:

1. If this was left to a referendum for voters, how many strip clubs would be approved? For those who approve of property rights (a topic that often comes up with teardowns), how many would also vote for strip clubs (and be consistent in their support of property owners)?

2. One note from the article on how to effectively word local regulations: “The court found the law did not infringe upon free speech because it did not ban adult expression, a key factor in successfully worded zoning laws restricting adult businesses across the country.” Thus, communities have to be very careful in order not to leave loopholes.

3. For clubs that already exist, it sounds like the most effective way to remove them is to find evidence of criminal or illegal activity.

When neighbors sue over a teardown McMansion

Can this end well? One Sioux Falls family sues their neighbors over the construction of a teardown McMansion and alleged violations of local ordinances:

In court documents, Pierce and Barbara McDowell charge that the new house is too close, too tall and negatively impacts use of their own property.

Not only does it block natural sunlight from reaching the McDowell house, the lawsuit charges, but the McDowells have been stopped from using their wood-burning fireplace because its chimney now is too close to the house being built by Joseph “Josh” Sapienza and Sarah Jones Sapienza…

The McDowells are asking for a permanent injunction to stop further construction at the Sapienza residence until it comes in compliance with the city’s 2013 Shape Places Zoning Ordinance and it is relocated so the McDowell house no longer violates the city’s Residential Code…

When completed, the Sapienza house at 1323 S. Second Ave., just south of the McDowell residence, will be a two-story single-family house containing almost 5,000 square feet. The permitted offset from property now is five feet, putting seven feet between the two houses…

The original house on the Sapienza property was multilevel with a total of 1,811 square feet on the main and upper levels. The lot measures 69 by 143 square feet. It had been built in the 1950s, and the Sioux Falls Board of Historic Preservation approved its removal from Second Avenue since it did not fit the neighborhood’s historic character. At a recent board meeting, however, two members referred to the new house as “a McMansion.”

To answer my own question, this cannot end well for all parties involved. The burden seems to be on the city to show that the proposed home did not violate any ordinances or guidelines. But, if it made it through the entire approval process even when neighbors had concerns, perhaps this won’t be difficult to demonstrate. Possible outcomes might include:

1. The neighbors are upset long-term feeling that the historic district is not protected or that the city doesn’t have a strong enough set of guidelines. Developing guidelines that will satisfy everyone can take quite a bit of time. Just look at Austin or Los Angeles.

2. The city feels like it can’t win in trying to balance competing interests. This is typically expressed as allowing collections of residents to have some control over their neighborhoods but also wanting individual homeowners to have some property rights (including pursuing teardowns). Such a lawsuit can take up time and money that could be better utilized elsewhere, particularly in an era of tight municipal budgets.

3. The property owners could have a tough time for years to come. If the lawsuit succeeds, how much do they have to change their home and at what cost? If the lawsuit fails, it is unlikely that the neighbors will suddenly like the home. I would be interested in reading a follow-up story in a few years to see if these owners are still living in the neighborhood.

At best, the disagreement between these neighbors will fade away and the city will have clearer guidelines that will help residents avoid such issues in the future. But, I would guess a more negative outcome is likely.

Uncertainty over who is liable for crashes of driverless cars

When an autonomous car gets into a crash, who is responsible? This question may just delay their mass market release:

“Automaker liability is likely to increase. Crashes are much more likely to be viewed as the fault of the car and the manufacturer,” Anderson said. “If you’re an automaker and you know you’re going to be sued [more frequently], you’re going to have reservations.… The legal liability test doesn’t take into account the long-run benefits.”

In other words, even though a technology is an overall boon to the greater good, its rare instances of failure—and subsequent lawsuits—won’t take that into account. That could slow the movement of driverless cars to the mass market if automakers are wary of legal battles…

As they grapple with what autonomous vehicles might mean for their industry, the legal frontier remains uncertain as well. One possible solution? A payout fund set up to compensate victims of driverless car accidents. That could be modeled similar to the Health and Human Services Department’s vaccine injury compensation fund, which takes a 75-cent tax from every purchased vaccine. The no-fault program helps those who have been hurt by vaccine-related incidents without exposing the medical community to legal battles and expensive damages payouts.

In the early stages, subsidies may be required to help driverless cars take hold in the market, according to Rand’s report on the technology’s adoption. Part of the money allotted for that could be set aside to help potential victims.

Sounds like there is still some work to do here and automakers are quite aware of these issues with recent events like the $1 billion settlement payout from Toyota. While it sounds like the technology is getting close, the legal and social issues might also prove difficult to nail down. But, the outstanding safety potential of driverless cars may force a quick resolution to the liability issue in order to save lives sooner.

Chicago McMansion battle reaches the McMansion pumpkin stage

One battle over a proposed McMansion in Chicago recently turned to pumpkins:

The large pumpkin popped up over the weekend next to his lot at 829 S. Bishop St. It was painted with the words, “When size matters … McMansion Pumpkin.”

Many neighbors have referred to Skarbek’s plan for his home as a “McMansion.” He plans to build a home much larger than the row home that had been there, and the home will eventually interrupt a string of front yards that are all set back from the street…

Later Tuesday, Skarbek’s next-door neighbor, Paul Fitzpatrick, said his wife decorated the pumpkin, which actually sits on his yard to the north of a fence surrounding Skarbek’s lot while the new home is being built.

“I meant it as a good gesture,” Carrie Fitzpatrick said. “He likes big houses, so I thought he’d like a big pumpkin. I spent a lot of money on that pumpkin, and if it backfired, I’ll feel really stupid.”

A holiday-themed McMansion fight turned petty. Both sides appear to be trying to pass it off as no big deal but even in a country of moral minimalism (the argument of M. P Baumgartner in The Moral Order of a Suburb), this is an odd way to go about things. If the neighbors are already pursuing a lawsuit, the other main way for Americans to settle irreconcilable differences, why move to the pumpkin stage?

Activist charged for downloading millions of JSTOR articles

Many academics use databases like JSTOR to find articles from academic journals. However, one user violated the terms of service by downloading millions of articles and is now being charged by the federal government:

Swartz, the 25-year-old executive director of Demand Progress, has a history of downloading massive data sets, both to use in research and to release public domain documents from behind paywalls. He surrendered in July 2011, remains free on bond and faces dozens of years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted.

Like last year’s original grand jury indictment on four felony counts, (.pdf) the superseding indictment (.pdf) unveiled Thursday accuses Swartz of evading MIT’s attempts to kick his laptop off the network while downloading millions of documents from JSTOR, a not-for-profit company that provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals that are normally inaccessible to the public…

“JSTOR authorizes users to download a limited number of journal articles at a time,” according to the latest indictment. “Before being given access to JSTOR’s digital archive, each user must agree and acknowledge that they cannot download or export content from JSTOR’s computer servers with automated programs such as web robots, spiders, and scrapers. JSTOR also uses computerized measures to prevent users from downloading an unauthorized number of articles using automated techniques.”

MIT authorizes guests to use the service, which was the case with Swartz, who at the time was a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics.

It sounds like there is some disconnect here: services like JSTOR want to maintain some control over the academic content they provide even as they exist to help researchers find printed scholarly articles. Services like JSTOR can make big money by collating journal articles and requiring libraries to pay for access. Thus, someone like Swartz could download a lot of the articles and then avoid paying for or using JSTOR down the road (though academic users are primarily paying through institutions who pass the costs along to users). But what is “a limited number of journal articles at a time”? Using an automated program is clearly out according to the terms of service but what if a team of undergraduates banded together, downloaded a similar number of articles, and pooled their downloads?

If we are indeed headed toward a world of “big data,” which presumably would include the thousands of scholarly articles published each year, we are likely in for some interesting battles in a number of areas over who gets to control, download, and access this data.

Another thought: does going to open access academic journals eliminate this issue?

Conservationists/residents, Will County fight over prairie plantings in the backyard

Here is an intriguing case that pits conservationists versus suburban government: should homeowners be able to have native prairie plantings in their backyard?

Since then, a two-year legal battle has spread like unruly crab grass across state and federal courts with no end in sight. Will County authorities have spent more than $50,000 on an outside lawyer to respond to civil rights claims while prosecuting the Frankfort-area family [includes two U.S. EPA employees] over the plants…

In March, the county offered to dismiss its ordinance violation case if the couple would drop their claims and allow inspectors to take another look at their property. The couple sought, among other things, a written apology, annual payments to care for the plot and for the county to highlight the wetland as a model of suburban native landscaping…

One neighbor says her family now uses more weed-killing chemicals to keep their lawn looking good, and another has stopped speaking with the offending couple, though one neighbor said she’s reluctant to oppose plants that are native to the area…

Will County says the problem isn’t with native landscaping, but with the Frankfort Square couple’s refusal to follow the rules. Mary Tatroe, head of the state’s attorney’s civil division, said the couple failed to live up to two separate agreements and was taken to court over the “noxious weeds” on their property.

In December, the county passed a new ordinance that allows native plantings under certain conditions along with fines and penalties of up to $525 per day for violations. Tatroe said the Frankfort Square couple still would be in violation of the new code, both because of the weeds and the lack of a 5-foot buffer from their neighbor’s property.

Does this sort of thing only happen in America?

If the article has all of the facts correct, this seems like a fairly straightforward case: local governments, whether they are municipalities or counties (which has jurisdiction here because this couple lives in an unincorporated area), can have rules about gardens and plants. If the couple want to change these rules (such as how far native plantings can be from an adjacent property), it may be more productive to do these outside of court. On the other hand, if the couple is trying to make a public statement about native plants and what is allowed, a lawsuit may just get people’s attention. Then again, a lawsuit sounds combative and this whole matter has also apparently set off unpleasantries in the neighborhood (don’t mess up my lawn with those “native weeds”!).

It would be interesting to know in how many places in the United States it is illegal to have native plants. The topography and vegetation in many places (including Illinois) has changed quite a bit…and I assume most people like it that way? (Let’s be honest: most people probably never think about it.)

The perceived unfairness in employment discrimination lawsuits

A new study by three sociologists examines how both sides in employment discrimination lawsuits feel about the process:

“We wanted to hear, from actual people involved in employment discrimination lawsuits, what litigation was like for them,” says Berrey, assistant professor of sociology at UB and a faculty affiliate of the American Bar Foundation (ABF). “There was one point that nearly everyone agreed on: that litigation is unfair.

“Beyond that, their experiences couldn’t have been more different. For plaintiffs, litigation is expensive and can bring real personal hardships. Many end up divorced, depressed, even bankrupt. Employers do not like litigation either, but they usually have the resources and expertise to keep these cases under control.”

The study, “Situated Justice: A Contextual Analysis of Fairness and Inequality in Employment Discrimination Litigation,” published in Law and Society Review, is based on a national random sample of employment civil rights cases and 100 interviews with plaintiffs, defendants, and lawyers who were involved in discrimination suits. Law and Society Review is considered the most-prestigious law and social science journal in the U.S…

“We have a fundamental problem with the legal system,” says Hoffman. “The primary way that the law deals with discrimination at work — litigation — is considered unfair by both parties, and winning in litigation requires considerable financial and legal resources.”

How legitimate is a process if both sides perceive it to be unfair? Of course, the rulings are enforceable so that helps make it legitimate…

I’ve wondered about this a few times recently: how often are court cases “won” or “lost” because of available financial resources? Certain parties would be able to withstand a long trial so does this suggest that the real “burden of proof” is sometimes less about evidence or a strong case and more about outlasting the other side? This also reminds me of something I read recently that suggested most criminal cases in the US tend to be plea bargained because the government(s) could not afford all of the full trials. I understand the interest in limiting “frivolous” lawsuits but at the same time, does the need to have some wealth to wage these lawsuits limit the ability of discriminated employees to win their case in court?

No new lawsuits for Righthaven

David Kravets over at Wired notes today that Righthaven appears to be on “life support” since it hasn’t filed any new lawsuits in a while:

With [a bunch of sanctions and adverse fee awards] now on appeal, the litigation factory’s machinery is grinding to a halt. A review of court records shows Righthaven has not filed a new lawsuit in two months, after a flurry of about 275 lawsuits since its launch at the beginning of last year. A court filing indicates there have already been layoffs (.pdf) at Righthaven’s Las Vegas headquarters, and even some already-filed lawsuits are falling by the wayside because Righthaven isn’t serving the defendants with the paperwork.

I think Wired may be a bit premature in its prediction of Righthaven’s demise.  Litigation factories have a tendency to rise again and again from the ashes.  Still, it’s nice to hear that no new bloggers are being hassled by Righthaven, at least at present.