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Neighbors sue to stop auto repairs at Harbeson home

County approvals, court opinion don’t end war on four-car garage
October 15, 2016

Charles Williams has neighbors to the east and to the west, and their opinions of him are like night and day.

“They say if you want to take down your neighbor, sue him,” he said.

For six years, three property owners on Martin Farm Road have waged a battle against Williams over his four-car garage that they say he is using to run a car repair business. His immediate neighbor, Margaret Foulke, said she has complained hundreds of times to Sussex County officials about noise, odors and traffic coming from Williams’ property, while neighbors John and Carol Kane, who live about 800 feet down the street, have complained about what they say is an illegal building on the property. “And we got nowhere,” Carol Kane said.

In 2014, the Kanes, Foulke and Foulke’s nephew, Robert Walker Jr. – who used to live in a house next to Williams on land bought from Williams – filed a suit against Williams in Chancery Court, hoping to stop him from working on cars in his garage and force him to tear down the structure that they say was built illegally.

A Chancery Court judge sees it differently. In June, Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III issued a memorandum opinion mostly in favor of Williams.

“Mr. Williams has a not-uncommon hobby – working on cars – that he pursues with an uncommon vigor, in a large shop beside his house. The plaintiffs, his neighbors, contend that the resulting sights, smells and sounds have disturbed the quiet enjoyment of their property. These are issues that neighborly people could have resolved with reasonable give-and-take, and reached thereby a result superior to that which can be achieved through a binary court decision based on property rights,” Glasscock wrote.

Glasscock denied the neighbors’ claim that Williams’ shop is a nuisance and that the noise and smells are excessive. The judge did, however, give Walker more say over the 275-foot easement known as Summer Place Lane, a driveway shared by both Williams and Walker. Speed bumps and speed limit signs could be added, Glasscock said, but Williams and Walker must work out the details.

Walker declined to comment on the lawsuit. He would not say how much he has spent on attorney fees or whether he intended to pursue the lawsuit in Delaware Supreme Court.

His aunt, Foulke, said she has spent $15,000 to sue Williams; Carol Kane said she has spent $32,000.

Their costs won’t end soon.

At the judge’s request, both parties have filed briefs regarding Walker, Foulke and Kane’s assertion that Williams violated Sussex County code by building his garage and should pay $100 a day in fines. Going back to 2010 when neighbors say Williams’ auto repair operation was in full bloom, he would now have accumulated more than $200,000 in fines. The judge’s decision is pending.

Both Foulke and Kane are determined to take their case to Delaware Supreme Court.

“We are going to go to the supreme court because this harms everybody,” Foulke said. “This has been nonenforcement from day one.”

A hefty price  

Williams estimates he has spent about $30,000 defending himself, a number that will rise after his lawyer finishes filing briefs, responses and any other court-required action. He anticipates spending at least $3,000 more – a substantial sum for a man whose only income is $800 a month in disability.

Williams has no legs. A freak construction accident in 1993 started a chain reaction of surgeries and amputations that continued for five years.

While finishing a deck job in Fenwick Island, Williams said, he was cutting his last board when it fell and nicked his foot. “It was just a simple thing. I’ve had boards hit me my whole life,” he said.

But this time it was far from simple. Doctors first removed his toenail, then his big toe, then half his foot. Williams said his blood kept clotting, putting his life at risk and leaving him in excruciating pain. Seventeen vascular surgeries and five amputations later, both his legs were removed above the knee.

Still strong as an ox, Williams gets around in a wheelchair, skillfully maneuvering around his home and property. He drives a modified vehicle to run errands, visit friends or attend his Oak Orchard church.

And he loves working on cars – his own, his family’s or his friends. In 2007, court records state, Williams subdivided his five-acre parcel purchased in 1999 and sold two parcels to Foulke and her partner, George Defrehn. With the proceeds, Williams built a 1,920-square-foot pole building and later a 600-square-foot addition. He received county approval for the pole building and the addition.

Lawrence Lank, Sussex County director of planning and zoning, said residents are allowed to use a pole building for a garage.

“It can be used as a garage for your own personal enjoyment. It can also be used for a shed, storage building or whatever,” he said.

Even though a pole building is a structure, he said, Sussex County officials accept the term as a use on a certificate of occupancy.

Foulke and Kane insist that a pole building cannot be used as a private garage per county code.

“His building is supposed to be used for personal storage only. It does not meet any kind of requirements for any type of garage much less what he’s been using if for,” Kane said.

Foulke is vehement that county code for the agricultural-residential-1 zone in which they live prohibits a private garage unless county officials approve it as a special-use exception.

Code requires a special-use exception for “private garages for more than four automobiles and with floor area of more than 900 square feet in a residential district.”

Lank said the conjunction “and” is key in reading the special-use exception correctly. It applies only to garages that house more than four vehicles and exceed 900 square feet, he said. Garages that house four or fewer cars can be larger than 900 square feet. “They’re reading that part of the ordinance wrong,” Lank said.

Elsewhere, county code states private garages are permitted uses in agricultural-residential districts.

In 2012, as the neighbor dispute heated up, Williams applied for a conditional use to operate an automotive repair shop or garage, even though he said he was working on cars with his friends. The planning and zoning commission denied the application and so did Sussex County Council because they said property owners are allowed to work on cars with their friends.

“This motion for denial should not be seen as putting a stop to what Mr. Williams and his friends can do on the property,” county council meeting records state.

At the height of the garage controversy, Lank said, county inspectors made unannounced monthly visits to Williams’ garage. Inspectors found no violations, he said.

“We still do inspections to verify things are the same,” he said.

Emotional toll

Little has been said about the emotional toll on Williams, said his daughter Kayla. “When this started he wouldn’t come out of the house. He was depressed, but he didn’t want anyone to know about what was going on,” she said.

Williams stays busy working on cars and spending time with his friends. He confines his work to a tidy, air-conditioned four-bay garage. Outside, no parking and other street signs are more decorative than business-like.

A string of eight no trespassing signs are spaced about 50 feet apart along Foulke’s pasture fence – a line of demarcation facing Williams’ property. A video camera fixates on Williams’ garage, recording everything. Foulke said she had a second camera, but it is not working now.

Williams’ immediate neighbor to the east asked to remain anonymous in order to stay out of the acrimonious neighbor dispute. He has lived next door to Williams since 1999, and unlike Williams’ other neighbors, he has never been bothered by noise or smell from Williams’ garage.

He said he considers Charles his friend, and everyone should live and let live.

“Whenever I need help, he helps me, and when he needs help, I help him. That’s what people do,” he said.

Williams keeps his booming voice down when he’s outside and is painfully aware of the cameras recording everything he does.

He remains optimistic that the lawsuit will be resolved in his favor, but at what cost, he asks. An appeal to Delaware Supreme Court would be devastating.

“I’m nearly financially ruined now,” he said. “This is really costing me.”

 Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Margaret Foulke’s complaints about the garage were different from John and Carol Kane’s complaints and that the Kanes live 800 feet, not a quarter mile, from Williams’ property. The story also now clearly states that a judge’s ruling is pending. In addition, the headline has been changed, correcting court decision to court opinion.

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