By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |
The last thing Treme resident Stephen Kennedy expected was to be handcuffed by the police in his own back yard.
But that’s exactly what happened as he built a fence along the property line separating his home from an oversized pool house that developer Tracy Williams was building on the lot next door.
What irked Kennedy was both the size of the construction project and the frequent incursion onto his lot by Williams and her work crew.
“I tried to keep her off my property. I put up a fence and she called the police,” says Kennedy. Williams had told police her fence-building neighbor was brandishing a weapon, Kennedy said.
It was an ugly moment in a neighborhood squabble that, in this instance, resulted in a rare victory – at least temporarily – for residents angered by a developer’s seeming immunity to city codes. On Monday, Dec. 12, city officials formally rescinded the building permits on Williams’ pool house.
The Kerlerec Street shotgun double that Kennedy and his wife, Glenda, call home has been in the family for generations. Earlier this year, Williams began to erect the two-story pool house alongside a grand, but rundown, North Prieur Street mansion she had acquired around the corner from the Kennedys.
Glenda Kennedy assumed it would be just a matter of time before city officials stepped in and put the kibosh on construction that exceeded the scope of Williams’ permit. “I thought they would stop her and they never did,” she said.
And so, for lack of city intervention, Stephen Kennedy began digging post holes for his fence, and Williams called the NOPD, claiming her neighbor was brandishing a shotgun. Police cuffed Kennedy but then found no gun.
Subsequent efforts by the Kennedys to bring the force of law to bear were unavailing. Stop-work orders were issued but then overridden by the city’s Department of Safety and Permits. Kelisha Garrett, an aide at the time to District C City Council member Kristin Giselson Palmer, was asked to take a look at the pool house but simply bounced the Kennedys back to Safety and Permits. The aide, no longer with Giselson Palmer, has since confirmed having a business relationship with the developer, but insists she was only following protocol in referring the Kennedys back to Safety and Permits.
After meeting rebuff from Safety and Permits, the Kennedys appealed to the Board of Zoning Adjustment.
Williams has bought and restored several properties in the Treme area and is a well-connected host of political fundraisers, says neighbor and Treme resident Will Germain. And the mansion at 1425 N. Prieur Street was a property of consequence: the childhood home of New Orleans artist Caroline Durieux. Preservationists considered its restoration a plus for the area.
But at Monday’s hearing, Williams did herself no favors. She described Safety and Permits dismissively, calling it an agency that comes and “looks at your property to make sure it is safe and then gives you a permit.”
David Taffet, Williams’ partner in the Prieur Street investment, had flown down from the Philadelphia area for the BZA hearing, but the Kennedys had allies as well. Several neighbors lined up to testify – some waiting more than seven hours to address the board.
Williams apparently had made enemies of people living near her other properties. They spoke of unpaid taxes and additional stop-work orders that were overridden.
At Monday’s hearing Williams gained support from testimony by Safety and Permits representative Ed Horan. The reason Williams had not previously been called before the Zoning Board was because her pool house was “not a substantial improvement,” Horan said. He called the work “just a repair.”
Stephen Kennedy countered by reading from a letter prepared by Johnny Odom, a city building inspector, who declared the project to be new construction, not a renovation. Pressed about the discrepancy, Horan said that Ann Duplessis, the deputy mayor whose purview includes Safety and Permits, had overridden that judgment and allowed construction to continue. City Hall spokesman Ryan Berni declined to make Duplessis available for comment.
The building was in fact smaller than what was there previously, Williams testified, all the while scrolling on her smart phone as though in search of a way out of the corner she was painting herself into.
Not so, said neighbor after neighbor. And as proof, they simply cited the original application Williams filed to the Historic District Landmarks Commission. It included a photo of the structure Williams proposed to “repair”, a squat one-story cinderblock shed measuring 10 feet by 18 feet. The application, as approved, allowed for general repairs and replacement with a request for a dry bar with no water, sink or drain.
Williams responded by insisting that the information on her application was incorrect. The original structure could sleep five and included a Jacuzzi, she said.
Rising to Williams’ defense, Taffet played for time, contending that the board had no right to hear the issue so fast on the heels of the Oct. 7 letter in which the city dismissed the Kennedys’ complaint and said construction could proceed.
The BZA decided otherwise and the pool house permits were rescinded.
Giselson Palmer, who has recently met with the Kennedys and other neighbors, issued a statement supporting neighborhood redevelopment but saying she was “thrilled” by the decision made by the BZA to rescind the flawed permits. She said she was “glad that the residents were heard.”
Asked what her next steps might be Williams responded with contempt for the BZA process. “The kangaroo court has spoken, the media circus is at play, and we will respond accordingly,” she said.
Elated by their victory, the Kennedys expressed delight with the BZA ruling but said they believe they will have to remain vigilant to be sure work doesn’t resume on the contested project – as it has before.
By their lights, Williams should be forced to tear down the two-story structure that now shadows their lawn because it was built without proper permits.
To make that happen, they fear they may have to go to court, and not just a kangaroo court, if that’s what the BZA proceeding turns out to have been.