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New battle begins in war over Harbeson garage

Charles Williams’ neighbors appeal Chancery decision to state Supreme Court
December 21, 2016

Neighbors who have waged a six-year war against a Harbeson man, calling his car repair shop illegal, are taking their fight to Delaware Supreme Court.

Margaret Foulke and John and Carol Kane filed an appeal Dec. 21 requesting the state Supreme Court review a Chancery Court decision in favor of their neighbor, Charles Williams. In November, Vice Chancellor Sam Glasscock III dismissed Foulke and the Kanes' claims against Williams' garage; they were insisting the garage is not up to Sussex County code and is not an approved use on land zoned agricultural. Glasscock also refused to to grant the neighbors injunctive relief or a declaratory judgement that would have required Williams to tear down his garage.

Carol Kane declined to comment on when the case could be settled.

The Chancery Court lawsuit was filed in 2014 by Robert Walker Jr., Foulke and the Kanes after they say they had exhausted complaints to Sussex County officials over noise, odors and traffic coming from Williams' property. Williams built his four-car garage with money he received after subdividing his 5-acre lot and selling some of his land to his immediate neighbor, Foulke. Walker built a home on some of the property, but no longer lives there. The Kanes live about 800 feet down the road from Williams.

A double-leg amputee, Williams said he enjoys working on cars with his friends. "It's my social life," he said.

Sussex County officials say a four-car garage is a permitted use in the agricultural-residential zone, AR-1, where Williams, Foulke and the Kanes all live.

After receiving complaints about the garage, Williams applied to county officials for a conditional use that would allow it. Officials denied Williams' application because they said he didn't need a conditional use, stating Williams was doing nothing wrong by fixing cars with his friends. County officials said Williams was doing nothing that required county approval.

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

Sussex County planning officials and inspectors have made countless, unannounced visits to Williams' garage and have found no violations, said Lawrence Lank, Sussex County director of planning and zoning.

Glasscock agreed with Sussex County officials that Williams' garage is legal, but he did give Walker more say over a 275-foot driveway shared by Williams and Walker's rental property, which could include installation of a speed bump or a speed limit sign.

Glasscock urged Williams to work on cars during reasonable hours and keep the cars inside his garage to limit noise and smells. The judge also said Foulke should stop video surveillance of Williams' property, and the Kanes and Foulke should try to be more respectful.

"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 in his decision.

Absent from the latest filing is Walker, who was the first-listed plaintiff on the Chancery Court lawsuit. An amendment to remove his name from the Delaware Supreme Court appeal was also filed. Walker has declined to comment on the lawsuit and appeal proceedings. Williams said he is on good terms with Walker and texted him the other day. "He said he could care less about the appeal," said Williams, who is disappointed that an appeal was filed.

A flood of support from people around the world after the Cape Gazette first published his story in October, however, has boosted his outlook. The story went viral, and a gofundme account created to offset the $30,000 he has spent on legal costs raised more than $58,000, and will help with future expenses.

Williams said he is ready to move on.

"I'd like to see the healing process begin," he said. "How can you hate somebody that much?"

Williams said he is not actively pursuing a countersuit, but if an attorney is interested in pursuing one pro bono, he would consider it in order to put an end to seemingly endless action against him.

"I'd consider it because what else will ever make them understand what they've done to my family?" he said.

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