Lincoln Realty paying fines for zoning violations at Amherst apartments, appeal withdrawn
AMHERST — Lincoln Realty has agreed to pay $2,400 in civil fines for zoning violations related to illegal living arrangements at Gilreath Manor apartments on Hobart Lane discovered by town officials last fall, according to Building Commissioner Robert Morra.
Morra had fined the company $100 a day, beginning Dec. 17, for each of the five units found to be in violation of the municipal bylaw that limits each unit to four unrelated housemates.
Lawrence Farber, the attorney representing Lincoln Realty and Kathryn Grandonico, told the Zoning Board of Appeals Thursday that the company admits there was a problem in the lease arrangements with tenants, but is not acknowledging it was known. New leases will inform tenants they cannot have more than four unrelated housemates, Farber said. In addition, an employee suspected of being responsible for these leases has retired, he said.
Morra described the deal as a 10-point agreement that calls for safety improvements and better renting practices.
The violations of the town bylaw were found following a Sept. 13 fire that damaged a basement in one unit and led to the discovery of beds and personal items in the basements of several other units. The investigation led Morra to determine the basements were being used as living quarters for unauthorized tenants, in violation of Section 12.15 of the town’s zoning bylaws. He issued his finding Oct. 19, and began issuing $100-per-day fines for each unit in violation starting Dec. 17, just after Farber filed an appeal to determine whether such fines should be assessed to the property owner or those living in the units.
The chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, whose three-member panel agreed to a request from Farber to withdraw his appeal, says the settlement doesn’t go far enough to remedy problems that likely had been present throughout the fall and possibly last spring.
Eric Beal said information supplied as part of the hearing process, from University of Massachusetts student tenants and attorneys representing them, reveals that representatives from Lincoln Realty knew there were more than four unrelated people in several units, that the practice was encouraged and that these employees sought to obstruct inspections and convince tenants to hide evidence prior to visits by town inspectors.
“I think those facts are fairly found based on the evidence,” Beal said. “I find it very disturbing and troubling. It appears the landlord acted in a self-serving way when the tenant’s safety was at stake.”
Beal suggested going beyond the building commissioner’s deal and increasing the fines.
“If (they are) not penalized sufficiently, they’ll have gotten paid for violating the law,” Beal said.
Farber said he sympathized with concerns expressed by Beal. “I understand on the surface this looks bad,” he said.
But Farber said the Zoning Board was not in a position to supersede the agreement because his appeal was based only on whether it was appropriate to levy fines against the landlord or whether tenants should instead be fined.
Town attorney Joel Bard, of Kopelman and Paige, cautioned the board not to go outside the narrow scope on which the appeal was based.
Zoning Board member Thomas Ehrgood said the board’s job was to determine the appropriateness of the building commissioner’s order, and not to “pretend we’re a building commissioner and impose fines.”
Hilda Greenbaum, the third member sitting on the panel, said the landlord already admitted culpability by agreeing to pay the civil penalty.
Farber argued that Gilreath Manor and Lincoln Realty offer some of the best and safest rental units in Amherst.
The basement spaces, he said, were permitted to be studies.
Morra said the basements are not unsafe from a code perspective, though the ceilings are not the mandated 7-foot height. But Morra said they do offer egress and had functioning smoke detectors.