Plassmann Property in Violation, Says Building Commissioner; Mobile Home Not on Tax Rolls
The city’s building commissioner has determined that the “trailer” on former city councilor Angela Plassmann’s property is really a mobile home that fails to meet state and local regulations for the floodplain. To say nothing of unpaid property taxes. . .
NORTHAMPTON – The mobile home on former city councilor Angela Plassmann’s property in the floodplain violates city zoning and state building codes, and was apparently placed there without Plassmann or her husband Jonathan – a longtime state Environmental Police officer – ever obtaining an occupancy permit, complying with floodplain regulations or even paying property taxes on the structure, Northampton Media has learned.
Whether these facts were the primary reason that Plassmann, the former Ward 3 city councilor, abruptly quit her post on April 8 after 15 months into her first two-year term, cannot be known from the outside. (To see our story on the resignation, click here.)
On her website (www.angelaplassmann.com), though, Plassmann suggests as much.
Her lengthy statement claims that an unnamed city department head had harassed her and had singled her out for political reasons. The city’s unspecified actions, she wrote, had caused “a profound negative impact on my family.” She refers to civil or criminal legal proceedings that might be forthcoming between her and the city, something she says would make it “inappropriate for me to continue serving on the City Council.”
The Investigation and a Letter from the Building Commissioner
Building Commissioner Louis Hasbrouck is currently investigating the trailer, or mobile home, that sits on Plassmann’s property.
From the dirt road that passes the Plassmann property in the Meadows section of the city, the small mobile home next to the red farmhouse looks comfortable. (To see a zoning map of where the Plassmann property is located, click here.)
It has a shingled roof, a wooden deck, a satellite dish, lots of windows, a grill, flowers and other amenities. An American flag appears to be wedged between two doors facing the dirt road, where several trees sport unwelcoming signs that read, “Private Property. No Trespassing.”
After receiving a letter from Planning and Development Director Wayne Feiden, who said he had received complaints about the property, Hasbrouck’s job as the city’s zoning enforcement officer was to determine whether the trailer, or mobile home, complies with state and city regulations.
At this point, there is no evidence in city documents that the mobile home even exists.
In a letter sent yesterday (Tuesday) to Plassmann’s lawyer, Patrick Melnik Sr., Hasbrouck says he has now determined that the “trailer” on Plassmann’s property is actually a “manufactured home” or “mobile home,” as defined by the state building code. As such, he told Northampton Media, the structure must comply with state building code and strict environmental regulations.
Hasbrouck also cited a city zoning ordinance that prohibits more than one housing structure on a lot unless specifically given a permit.
“I have viewed the property from the street. The structure in question appears to be a manufactured home as defined by the Massachusetts Building Code rather than a recreational vehicle,” Hasbrouck wrote in his letter to lawyer Melnik. The state building code, he wrote, treats such manufactured or mobile homes “as structures, making them subject to flood zone regulations.”
The letter concludes:
“Based upon my observations and a review of the building code and Northampton’s zoning ordinance, I have undertaken an investigation of this complaint.. . .
I would like to meet with you or the Plassmanns to discuss this matter within the next two weeks. I would also like to arrange a time to visit the property to examine the structure as soon as is convenient.
Please contact me to set up a meeting, or please let me know if I should contact the Plassmanns directly. Thank you.
(To see Hasbrouck’s letter, the original Planning Department complaint, and relevant sections of the state building code, click here.)
The Special Conservancy District
If Hasbrouck’s determination holds up, it means the structure is also subject to the city’s strict floodplain zoning within the Special Conservancy (SC) District. In the SC district, new structures require a special permit from the Planning Board. Feiden said that no special permit has ever been issued for the Plassmann property.
The Special Conservancy District includes the entire Connecticut River floodplain between Interstate 91 and the river, the Oxbow, and other low-lying areas.
(To see a pdf of the entire SC District, click here.)
The Plassmann’s home is located at at 180 Fair St. Extension, smack dab in the middle of the Meadows section of the city, in the floodplain and within the SC District.
The SC zoning regulations, last updated in the 1990s, were written to “protect the public health and safety, persons and property against the hazards of seasonal and periodic flooding.”
Among its other provisions, these regulations require that the floor of any new structure in the district “shall be at or above the 100-year floodplain,” and that all structures “shall be so designed, constructed and secured to prevent flotation, collapse, or lateral movement of the structure during flooding. . ..”
Hasbrouck told Northampton Media that the Plassmann property sits at 114 feet above sea level, 11 feet below water levels expected during a 100-year flood.
(To see the three-page Special Conservancy District regulations, click here.)
Occupancy permits in the district require a “certified plan” – submitted by a registered engineer or architect – showing both “the foundation and floor elevations” and details regarding the sewage disposal system.
No such plans were ever filed with the building department for 180 Fair St. Extension, and no occupancy permit was ever issued for the mobile home.
As of two weeks ago, the most recent entries in the Plassmann file show that Angela D. Dion (Plassmann’s name from a previous marriage) spent about $10,000 in 2004 to install a metal roof and siding on her circa-1900 farmhouse.
Wayne Feiden’s March 21 Letter to Angela Plassmann
Hasbrouck’s letter is not the first one to be sent between the parties on this issue.
Planning Director Feiden sent one to Councilor Plassmann a month ago, one that – while giving her the bad news there were complaints about her trailer – seemed pleasant enough and suggested they could work out any problems.
Feiden told Northampton Media that he received no complaints directly, but that heard from other city employees about a possible unauthorized structure on the Plassmann property and felt compelled to follow up.
In his March 21 letter to Plassmann, Feiden attached state aerial photographs showing that a structure had appeared on her property sometime between 2005 and 2008, asked for clarification, and offered to work with her to bring the property into compliance.
“We haven’t been to the site, since I wanted to give you a chance to provide background or work with us to address the issues before we take any action,” Feiden wrote.
“If you could clarify what we see on the air photos within a week, I would appreciate it. If this structure is grandfathered, I would love to be able to close the file. Otherwise, we would be happy to assist you as you go through the permit process,” Feiden’s letter concluded.
Before sending the letter, Feiden said, he left Plassmann a phone message, and did speak to her briefly later. At that point, she acknowledged the issue at hand and asked him to keep her in the loop, Feiden told Northampton Media.
Plassmann knows how these things work and she knows Feiden well.
In fact, Plassmann worked as the “board secretary” to the Planning and Development Office for two and a half years, from January 2001 until June 30, 2003, when her p0osition was eliminated in a round of budget cuts, city records show.
But city officials found her another job, as secretary to the City Council and License Commission, where she worked for another 13 months before leaving to take a job at the University of Massachusetts.
The Complaints Get Passed Along
During our interview with Feiden the day after Plassmann’s resignation, he said he had not seen her website posting, in which she described being “singled out” for political motivations and being harassed by a city department head.
We read that section to Feiden. His response was, “I have to assume it’s not me.”
By the time Plassmann resigned and posted her website letter to constituents, Hasbrouck told Northampton Media that he had neither visited her property nor had any contact with Plassmann or her husband.
Plassmann has not returned phone messages to her home, and additional details on the nature of her charges were unavailable.
Mayor Mary Clare Higgins said last week she has received no complaints from Plassmann about any department head.
Feiden said it is not unusual for his office to send letters similar to the one he sent Plassmann, and that in most cases – if it is determined there is a violation – a property owner agrees to work with the city to get a permit or figure out another solution.
As to the charge of politically motivated enforcement, Feiden said his office takes all information about potential violations seriously, and acts on it regardless of who the subject is – the city or another political entity, a sitting politician or a regular citizen – without regard to ruffling feathers. He said he filed complaints against the city under the current and previous mayors, despite potential political repercussions.
With no explanation or formal response from Plassmann, Feiden moved the complains along, sending a letter to Building Commissioner Hasbrouck, alerting him of the potential violations and formally asking him to investigate. A copy of the letter was also sent to Plassmann.
(To see a copy of Feiden’s letter to Hasbrouck, click here.)
Plassmann’s Lawyer to Building Commissioner: Tell Me Who Ratted Out My Client
The day after Feiden’s letter of complaint, Plassmann’s lawyer tried to derail the investigation.
On April 5, lawyer Melnik sent a letter to Building Commissioner Hasbrouck.
Rather than addressing the substance of the complaint, Melnik demanded the names of those who had complained about the Plassmann property.
“All I have been able to determine thus far is that there is apparently some innuendo made from some anonymous informant,” Melnik wrote. He asked Hasbrouck to provide him with the name and address of complainants, the dates and times of observations and “a detailed description of the activity being complained of. . ..
“If you do undertake an investigation and you aren’t able to determine the name and address of the complaining party, or the specific observations made that are being complained of, I would appreciate you closing this matter without action.”
(To see Melnik’s letter, click here.)
Three days later, Plassmann quit.
Hasbrouck told Northampton Media last week that he is not concerned with where the complaints originated. To him, the only complaint that matters is the one he got from Wayne Feiden.
Reached today, Melnik said that the Plassmann property “is either in compliance or will soon be in compliance” with all city regulations. He declined to provide further details.
Again, he turned the focus back to the whistleblower who brought the city’s enforcement muscle to his client’s doorstep, literally.
“We’re trying to determine who was the instigator of this complaint,” said Melnik. “That’s the real story.”
Unpaid Property Taxes and the End Game
Zoning and building code violations are not the only problem facing the Plassmanns — city records show that no property taxes have ever been paid on the mobile home.
The official record of the Plassmann property kept by the city assessors office does not show a trailer or mobile home on the property. (See that card by clicking here.)
In a brief interview last week, Principal Assessor Joan Sarafin said she drove past the Plassmann property a few weeks ago and noticed the undocumented trailer.
If the trailer were registered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Sarafin said, then it would be charged as excise tax from that state department, and would not come under her jurisdiction.
If not, however, the building would be considered a housing structure, and would be subject to property tax like any other residence in the city.
Because the mobile home does not yet officially exist in the assessors’ office records, it has not been taxed. And if the aerial photograph from 2008 is accurate, that’s a few years of property taxes that have gone unpaid. Because assessors have not had access to the property, they have no estimated tax for the building.
Assessors say they cannot collect taxes retroactively, but would start assessing the property in July if the structure still stands.
City voting records show that residents of 180 Fair St. Extension are Angela Darlene Plassmann; her husband, Jonathan C. Plassmann; and her mother, Marylou K. Jillson.
Hasbrouck is circumspect about the whole matter.
The issue, Hasbrouck said, is not who leaked the original complaints, as lawyer Melnik insists, but whether the structure complies with zoning.
If it does not, Hasbrouck said, there’s always a a solution. In this case, he said, the proper permits can be applied for and documents provided to his office and to the Planning Department. If the application meets the required standards, the building will comply; if the standards are too strict, and it is impossible to issue permits for the trailer, it will have to be removed.
For now, Hasbrouck said, he will wait to hear from lawyer Melnik or the Plassmanns. He has given them two weeks to reply. At some point, he will need access to the mobile home to determine for himself whether it has been lived in. As of today, no formal request for an administrative search warrant has been lodged.
The issue will be resolved one way or another. Whether the whole matter ends up in court will have to wait for another day.
© 2011 Northampton Media
David Reid can be reached at email@example.com