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City tries, once again, to stop zoning infractions on Parmer Lane

Monday, July 13, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

Most drivers probably pass the old metal building without a second glance.


The gray structure at 3601 West Parmer Lane is occupied by a mix of` mom-and-pops — auto and motorcycle repair shops, a car stereo installation outfit, a mobile steam cleaner, and a fishing gear and tackle place.


However, this ordinary-looking building has been noticed – by city inspectors. They have spent years trying to reel in the building’s owner and a handful of tenants for violating a litany of city building and development codes.


Now — after making at least two blunders in issuing building permits at the site and years of slow-footed enforcement and prosecution – the city seems serious about cracking down on what they say are illegally-operated businesses in the building near a busy intersection just west of MoPac.


The 33,000-square-foot structure is owned by James Yett, a 95-year-old man who has lived in the area so long that a nearby creek is named after him. Known as “Doc” by his tenants and employees, Yett has a PhD and taught nuclear analysis at the University of Texas at Austin until he retired in 1965. He spends his days selling fishing gear and tackle and trying to rent spaces in his nondescript sheet-metal structure.


City officials accuse Yett of violating Austin building codes by renting to businesses without certificates of occupancy and violating zoning codes. The city has nine pending criminal cases against Yett, some dating to 2005, for operating without a required retail site plan, and in violation of other city requirements.


After years of court delays and slow-footed prosecution, the first of these cases is set for a jury trial July 20. 


Tenants – some of whom face fines of upwards of $2,000 or more — said they are the ones caught in the middle. Ibrahim Nasser, owner of Yos Auto Repair, said he did not learn of potential problems until sometime after he purchased the business in 2005. One day about a year ago, his seven-employee operation was interrupted when officers with Code Compliance and the Police and Fire Departments barged into his shop, he said. He was cited for running a “prohibited use” business. His case is set to go to trial July 22. This is the second similar ticket he has received; an earlier case for not having a proper certificate of occupancy was dismissed.


“We’re caught in the middle,” Nasser said. He blames both Yett for not informing him about the issues before he bought the business and the city for putting him in this predicament because they let the situation go on so long.


Yett and his building have caused trouble for city regulators for many years. 


The spat stems to 1976 when the city annexed property Yett owned on Austin’s northern edge. In addition to living on the land, Yett operated a fishing and tackle supply business on the property.


In the early 1980s, when the expansion of Parmer Lane began — creating the major cross-town artery it is today – Yett relocated his home and the building for his business was torn down, Yett told In Fact Daily.


In 1983, Yett began construction on the south side of Parmer for a building to house his wholesale and retail fish and tackle business. The city granted Yett a building permit, but as construction neared completion city inspectors realized they made a mistake in granting him a permit. They also discovered Yett was occupying a portion of the building without a certificate of occupancy, according to court filings.


In 1984, 53rd District Court Judge Mary Pearl Williams ruled against the city, saying it violated the law when it attached zoning restrictions to the property without, for example, abiding by the legal requirements for public notification.


Since winning the court judgment – a ruling the city did not appeal – Yett has quietly continued to operate and enjoyed a reprieve from current city zoning code. Then in 2005, Yett carved up the space into separate, air-conditioned retail spaces, according to city staffers and Travis County Appraisal District records.


Yett said that since his building was grandfathered he doesn’t have to abide by city zoning codes on the property.


“There’s no zoning on this property at all – hasn’t been since 1984,” Yett said. “The city doesn’t understand anything. They don’t understand they lost the case.”


City officials disagree, saying it is Yett who doesn’t understand. They said the amnesty only applies to Yett’s business – not to other businesses that move into the building.


As the cases move forward, the city has begun to net some smaller fish. Among those caught recently was Sidney Grief — one of Yett’s would-be tenants. Grief wanted to open a women’s lingerie and dance wear shop in a vacant storefront in Yett’s building.


But on April 16, a month after Grief received a building permit to begin work to finish out the space, city building inspectors reversed course, admitted they made a mistake, rescinded the building permit and ordered Grief to stop all work. A Code Compliance inspector said that Grief’s retail business was not permitted at the site. Moreover, apparently most – if not all — the other businesses in the building are operating legally, according to city officials. Yett’s fishing tackle business, Jensen Ace Fish & Tackle, enjoys an “amnesty” — exempting it from certificate of occupancy requirements as a nonconforming business. Even so, Yett has been cited for failing to file required site plans, obtain certificates of occupancy and building permits for construction on his property, according to Municipal Court records.


Because of the city’s blunder, Grief complained that he lost thousands of dollars he spent on construction and fixtures and other start-up costs.


“The city has never gotten a conviction from him [Yett] and they continue to harass his tenants and deny me, who tried to do everything right and by the books,” said Grief, whose primary business is AAA News – an Austin chain that sells periodicals, X-rated magazines and DVDs. 


Citing legal precedents, Grief appealed the cease and desist order to the Building and Fire Code Board of Appeals, the city’s volunteer board that decides building code disputes. On June 17, board members unanimously voted to uphold the city and denied Grief’s appeal.


“What the city seeks to avoid is an enlargement of a nonconforming use,” Assistant City Attorney Kathleen Buchanan said after the decision. “The only space currently entitled to amnesty is the fish and tackle business.”


Paul Tomasovic, assistant division manager for Code Compliance, estimated in the past few years about 30 businesses have either illegally opened for business or – like Grief – tried to open. Businesses that opened and moved or were shut down include a gaming parlor, a discount dollar store, and an Army surplus store.


In additional to fielding anonymous complaints from neighbors, officials said they are concerned about health and safety of people working and patronizing the establishments operating illegally. Zoning for the property is “LR CO,” a district that allows office and light retail uses.


“Most of the businesses that Mr. Yett rents to are not a permitted use in a LR-CO zoning district,” Tomasovic wrote in an e-mail. “Those that are permitted under the current zoning need to get a site plan or site plan exemption, permits, and any other required approval for their type of business, before they move into the site.” A site plan depicts how a building meets the city’s current Land Development Code, including setbacks, drainage, sidewalks, parking and environmental issues.


City staff said they have approached Austin Energy to cut off electric service to the tenants, but found a roadblock: Yett receives all the bills, which he distributes to tenants each month. The city-owned electric provider cannot cut service to Yett since his bills are paid and he operates a legal business, city officials said.


“We have tried to get with the landlord to stop leasing out space,” but to no avail, Tomasovic told members of the Building and Fire Code Appeals Board.


Yett’s attorney, Gene Anthes, predicted Yett will prevail.


“He’s crossed all the ‘t’s and dotted all the ‘i’s and the city is out to get Dr. Yett,” Anthes said. “I think he’ll be vindicated. I think the real story here is how much money the city is wasting to bring suit against Dr. Yett. How many times has the city tried this? And we’ve gotten out of every single one.”

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