House Of Pain

Manufactured Housing Battle Blights North Richey Boulevard.

By Tim Vanderpool

JUST WHEN, EXACTLY, is a house not a home? According to Webster's, a home is "a place of residence," or "one's own place." A house, on the other hand, is defined as a "building to live in."

Scratch a straight line between the two, toss in a few aesthetic quibblings, and you have the crux of the problem on North Richey Boulevard. That's where Steve Hebert recently raised a stink by squeezing a deluxe Palm Harbor manufactured house onto a dirt lot, within spitting distance of a little old lady in a 1930s adobe.

Now, regardless of its accouterments, a Palm Harbor can't escape being the strapping big brother to your garden-variety mobile home. This one's still up on trailer jacks (although they're discreetly hidden behind slump block skirting). And it did arrive on wheels.

Currents The building is pleasant enough, however, in an anal sort of way. Straight as a steamer trunk, with clean corners, white shiny doors, and gleaming, greenish trim, it's basically an A-type personality with plumbing, a 14-foot-tall perfectionist's paradise under asphalt shingles.

All of which doesn't necessarily make it pretty. Nor does it endear this house/home to the enraged folks of the Palo Verde Neighborhood Association. Unfortunately, if you live in a likewise normal residential area in town, one lacking historical or some other special designation, you too just might see a Palm Harbor or its equivalent sidling up against your own petunia patch.

But there's a catch: In this case a few peculiarities may have eased Steve Hebert's pre-fab vessel into its midtown port.

Placing the house right next door to 89-year-old Mrs. Crowe--to the tune of a mere three feet--required Hebert to apply for a Land Development Option or LDO. That's officialese for a rapid-fire exception to established zoning codes, pending notification and de facto thumbs-up by affected neighbors.

But there's a catch: Only Mrs. Crowe signed off on the option, though she has since retracted her approval with a notarized affidavit. She now says the house is a bigger monstrosity than she bargained for, and reaches much higher than the roughly 11 feet she'd been promised.

Today it towers over her cozy cottage like a box-fisted bully, with belligerent windows peeking into her once private domain.

Other neighbors say they didn't know about the Palm Harbor until it couldn't be stopped. That's Peculiarity Number One. Peculiarity Number Two: The LDO procedure requires the city to send out a succession of notices to surrounding property owners. The first announces the permit request, the second its approval.

Neighbors say they received neither.

Then comes Peculiarity Number Three. Steve Hebert heads his family's North Dodge Contracting Inc., a company that's garnered more than $315,000 worth of water line work for the city, dating back to 1987.

Which suggests that, even if the Heberts didn't pull a few municipal strings, they at least knew the civic ropes better than most.

Did it help in this situation? Anne Graham, an attorney for the Palo Verde Association, isn't a fan of conspiracy theories. But she does consider the LDO's speedy approval "a little odd." Especially, she says, "when the first notice gives the date, time and manner in which the LDO is to be considered. "

How, she asks, are those affected folks supposed to respond overnight?

Graham describes an LDO as "kind of a funny little procedure. It's very simple but very dangerous, because little if any notice gets disseminated to surrounding property owners. And it basically allows a person to obtain a variance without going to the Board of Adjustment."

She says the Association had a recent meeting with Bill Vasko, head of Tucson's Planning Department, to discover why this case got the hustle, and exactly who constitutes "affected property owners." Now Graham and her Palo Verde clients are waiting to see if they can appeal the LDO, an opportunity she labels quite rare.

SENIOR CITY PLANNER Frank Podgorski approved the Hebert's LDO. He says since it was only for a one-story house, and only affected Mrs. Crowe's property, the Heberts were told they needed only her signature. That explains why the option was granted so quickly, he says. "It's a judgment call."

But when the Heberts later tried to obtain a building permit, they learned their land was in a flood plain area, requiring them to raise the building at least one foot from the ground. They raised it three. As a result, Mrs. Crowe suddenly saw a 14-foot edifice shadowing her home, causing her to blow a doily and issue the retracting affidavit.

Podgorski admits the increased height could render the Hebert's original LDO invalid. "That very well may be," he says. He's currently awaiting a decision from the City Attorney. Regardless, the Widow Crowe still has a big Palm Harbor invading her personal space.

Robert Martinique is Palo Verde's pissed-off point man for this manufactured conundrum. He's smelled a skunk all along, due to the Hebert's City Hall ties. "I think the fix is in," he says, adding that every concern raised by city inspection officials were squashed once they returned downtown. He says the association has subsequently endured a barrage of double-speak.

A few examples: Martinique says the flood plain question is a red herring, and that Assistant City Attorney Michael McCrory told him the home was protected by federal low-income housing rules. McCrory also said interfering with its placement would violate interstate commerce statutes, according to Martinique.

McCrory denies that wording with a frustrated sigh. "I have explained to a number of people in that neighborhood that one of the reasons why the city is limited in its ability to regulate manufactured homes is because of principles of interstate commerce," he says. "There are federal laws that govern the sale and location of manufactured homes.

"There are cases in other jurisdictions holding that you cannot prohibit mobile homes or manufactured homes because they're part of interstate commerce. That's not one individual lot or one situation. Those are some general principles that I've talked to people in that area about, as to why you can't just say we don't want any manufactured homes or mobile homes anywhere in the city."

He also said that any new home in the Palo Verde area would have to be flood-proofed, as part of the city's flood plain insurance under Federal Emergency Management Administration guidelines.

The folks at FEMA "got a real kick out of that one," Martinique responds. "They told me that FEMA hadn't done any flood plain mapping in this area since the 1930s, and that it obviously wouldn't have any effect at this point."

Martinique also says Fire Inspector Richard Davis called the Hebert's home a firetrap. Davis denies that assertion. "I was misquoted," he says. "I said it was possibly a potential fire hazard."

Davis blames the comment on his misreading of height and distance regulations. He later realized those rules applied only to storage sheds and the like. "But I think (Martinique) heard what he wanted to hear," Davis says. "I understand (the neighbors') issues, but typically, when we receive complaints like this, it's due to feuding neighbors using whatever tools they can."

He scoffs at the notion of hidden pressures prompting his stance. Ditto for Podgorski. "I've been accused of being friends with the Heberts, or being in collusion with them," Podgorski says. "That's not true at all. This has been handled on an objective basis."

Steve Hebert, the 25-year-old chief of North Dodge Contracting, says Martinique "seems to have a personal thing against me," dating from earlier days when they were closer neighbors, and Hebert was a budding musician. He says Martinique repeatedly called the cops because of his Dionysian drumming. "I talked to him about it, and I even put a board over my window. But then he just called the cops again."

Regarding the charming qualities his Palm Harbor may or may not exude, "Just look around the neighborhood," Hebert says. "There are all kinds of homes here. And out of all these neighbors, only a few are putting up a fuss."

He adds that his new digs will enjoy beautification via landscaping and a carport, before it's turned over to renters. But his bottom line remains unadorned: "We have a permit," he says. "The house isn't going anywhere."

Martinique retains the weary ferocity of a battered bulldog. "Listen," he says, "we've been getting lied to all the way along. All we want is our day before the Board of Adjustment."

Until that day comes, however, the Palm Harbor will likely remain anchored in the choppy waters of North Richey Boulevard. TW

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