The City of Williamsburg is suing the landlord of 219A Harrison Ave. for violating the city’s three-person rule, which prohibits more than three unrelated people from living together.
The city brought the lawsuit against 219 Harrison Ventures, LLC, the owners of the property, before the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court earlier this month.
“The house was found to be in violation of the city’s zoning ordinance,” Williamsburg Zoning Administrator Rodney Rhodes said. “It had not been corrected within the time period given the property owner.”
In November 2009, the city notified nine houses it suspected of violating the three-person rule. Eight of the houses have since come into compliance, Rhodes said, and have allowed an inspection to ensure compliance.
The residents of 219A Harrison Ave. appealed the city’s decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
The disagreement arose from differing interpretations of the city code. The three-person rule is focused on the city’s definition of a family, which is typically the only unit of people permitted to reside in a single-family dwelling. City code defines a family as an individual, two or more related people, no more than three unrelated people or two unrelated people with one or more dependents.
The four residents of 219A Harrison Ave. — Sarah Beck ’10, Caroline Groom ’10, Roxanne Lepore ’10 and Adriane Lepore ’10 — argue that they are not violating the three-person rule because the Lepores are twin sisters.
However, the city says that because the Lepores are related, the definition of family must center around them, meaning 219A Harrison Ave. is a residence to a family plus two unrelated people — a code violation.
A family plus two unrelated people would be permitted in an owner-occupied dwelling with a special permit, conditions 219 Harrison Ave. does not fulfill.
At its March meeting, the BZA ruled in favor of the city. The residents have appealed the decision to the WJCC Circuit Court; the matter is pending.
Because that appeal is only on behalf of the residents, the city took action against the property owner, 219 Harrison Ventures, which is operated by William J. Busching.
Busching allowed the situation to continue, the city alleges, and the lawsuit seeks to bring the maximum civil penalty against the landlord. The lawsuit requests that the court order Busching to reduce the number of unrelated people to no more than three, allow the city access to the property to ensure code compliance, and order a fine of $3,000.
Busching did not return requests for comment.
In correspondence with the city, Busching alleges the city has “some vendetta against students and property owners.”
“I believe that as a taxpayer of the city of Williamsburg, your office and current policy on this issue is unjust and used to unfairly target college students and property owners,” Busching wrote in a letter to Rhodes dated Dec. 16, 2009. “It is rather obvious that your office has spent more than a fair amount of time to investigate, search out and use several avenues to collect information on your targeted areas. I find that a complete waste of manpower, time and money.”
After the city filed the lawsuit earlier this month, Busching wrote that, although he disagrees with the BZA’s decision, he provided notice to the residents to come into compliance within 60 days.
Notably, the current resident’s lease ends May 31, just short of two months after notice was given.
Furthermore, Busching has not yet applied for a permit under the city’s new four-person option.
“I would welcome that application,” Rhodes said.
The option would allow four unrelated people to live together if certain conditions are met, including a space of at least 2,000 square feet and parking room for four. The city would also be allowed to inspect residences occasionally to ensure no more than four unrelated people live there.
“Without having an application in hand, I cannot say with certainty that [219A Harrison Ave.] meets all the minimum requirements, but it does appear to meet the 2,000 square feet. It’s within one of the rental inspection districts which allows this option, [and] I believe they probably have enough room for four parking spaces,” Rhodes said. “But I don’t have a survey of the plot in hand to look at.”
Only two houses have applied for the four-person option at this time, Rhodes said — 504 S. Boundary St. and 727 Lafayette St. The decisions on those applications will come sometime in May, he said.
Several other property owners have taken out applications, but have yet to submit paperwork.
The city also recently concluded a lawsuit against the landlords of 711 Richmond Rd. The city sued the residents and landlords in January 2009, alleging four unrelated people, who were then all students at the College of William and Mary, were violating the three-person rule.
In an out-of-court agreement, the city dropped the suit against the residents. The landlords of 711 Richmond Rd. agreed to apply for the four-person option to allow the city to inspect the house annually, or upon any credible complaint.
The landlords have not yet applied for the option, Rhodes said, but have until the end of June to do so.
According to Rhodes, 219A Harrison Ave. is the only residence the city knows of in violation of the three-person rule.
“[219 Harrison is] the only one we’re taking action with at this time,” he said. “I have no proof of other houses violating that section of the ordinance. I’m not going to get into what I suspect. I mean, that would be improper for me to state what I suspect.”