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Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Zoning Variance for a New Home on an Eroding Lot Has Collinwood Residents and Councilman Mike Polensek Fuming

Posted By on Tue, Jan 7, 2020 at 11:21 AM

  • The lot in question in North Collinwood/Google Maps
Teri Dew walks with me towards a cliff on Lake Erie in North Collinwood. She points to the air in front of us.

“There used to be a bench here,” she tells me. Then she turns to Terry Jaros, her neighbor of over a decade. “And about — how much would you say — five feet [of land]?”

Terry Jaros nods.

“Probably about five feet in front of the bench. Because my dog is twelve now [but] when he was a puppy, I used to go sit on the bench and look at the lake and he would play in front of me between me and the cliff," Jaros says. "And of course, if I had thought my dog was going to fall over, I wouldnt have been there. And he thinks he’s going to build out here.”
  • Where the bench is now, down the cliff/ Hannah Lebovits

Terry Jaros and Teri Dew are resident experts. They know exactly how their neighborhood functions now, what tensions have historically shaped it, and where the neighborhood is going. But their insight doesn’t seem to matter when a wealthy property owner with connections to city hall wants to build a two-story home on an eroding beachside lot.

Vincent DeGeorge, a local psychiatrist who Jaros says is now avoiding her, lives only a few blocks down from the two women. He's the "he" in "he thinks he's going to build here."

For months, DeGeorge has been trying to gain the necessary approvals to build a home on the empty lot at 17405 Dorchester in North Collinwood. But the lot is unbuildable, according to a May 1990 Cleveland Zoning resolution, and according to Wertz Geotechnical Engineering.

Nevertheless, the Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals seems to disagree. In October 2019, the Cleveland Division of Construction Permitting denied DeGeorge’s request to build a two-story home on the lot (measured by Terry Jaros at about 89 feet) that would be 74 feet by 34 feet. The plan was denied because the attached garage was located in the incorrect area and the home did not account for the necessary 40-foot setback, as is required according to the zoning code.

In late November, however, the BZA approved the permit, allowing DeGeorge to build the home without the necessary setback. The agenda item had been delayed for several weeks, a tactic that the women believe DeGeorge used to reduce the number of attendees at the meeting and lessen the pushback. Regardless, the November meeting was well attended by North Collinwood residents, as well as City Councilman Mike Polensek. Many residents had come to speak against the plan, not only because the site is unbuildable but because the suggested structure would obstruct their views of the lake — views that were built into the cost of their homes when they purchased them.

The women report that the BZA chairperson dismissed their concerns about the structure with an argument that spaces change and they need to adapt. But Jaros and Dew, and a number of their neighbors, aren’t arguing against the plan because they dont want to see change or progress. Their worried that the structure will fall into the lake and DeGeorge will walk away, leaving the neighborhood to deal with his mess.

“None of us can understand why [this spot], when for half a million dollars he could have bought a home in Euclid,” says Teri Dew. “[DeGeorge] says its because he doesn't like the neighborhood a few blocks down. It’s no different than this. This seems like I’ve got money and I can do whatever I want.”

Residents’ concerns fell on deaf ears. With four BZA members in attendance, three voted to approve the permit and one voted against it. Both women attended and told Scene it seemed clear that the BZA members were not there to listen; their minds seemed to have been made up. Why? Jaros and Dew point to DeGeorge’s attorney, Tony Coyne, as the likely cause.

Coyne is a regular in the Cleveland real estate and city planning circles. Though he’s currently president of Mansour Gavin, a law firm with offices in Cleveland and Independence, Coyne served as a member of the Cleveland Planning Commission from 1990-2000 and then became its chairman until he left the position in 2015. He has also served on a number of nonprofit and educational boards and has written and lectured extensively. And, as Teri Dew and Terry Jaros saw it, he was clearly quite chummy with the BZA members.

Scene reached out to Coyne about the matter and never received a response. A records request from the city indicated that no emails were exchanged between Coyne and the members of the BZA. However, in late 2018, DeGeorge told the neighbors that he would find some way to build and had an “in” at city hall. Jaros and Dew think that person is Coyne. As they understand it, after DeGeorge found out that the lot was unsuitable for building, he sought out the services of Coyne, assuming that the former commission chairman could see the project through.

Even veteran councilman Mike Polensek can sense that something is off. In an email to a resident, which was forwarded to Scene, Councilman Polensek wrote: “I, too, was surprised by the Chairperson’s demeanor and attitude. Unfortunately, she did portray that somehow there was a 'quid quo pro' with Mr. Coyne and City Planning, which I find troubling and disturbing.”

In a conversation with Scene, Polensek reiterated his stance. “I’ve attended a lot of zoning hearings and I’ve never quite frankly seen or experienced one where you had a community except for one individual [who] was opposed to this thing, outside of the appellants.” Polensek agreed that it appeared that the “fix was in.”

What are the next steps for Dew and Jaros? They’ll take their case to court, if they must. And they’ll bring new evidence, to argue that the BZA could not approve the variance, according to the zoning code. The new evidence, which showed up in Jaros’s mailbox only a few days after the BZA approved the request, is from section 329.04 of the zoning code and expressly states that a variance for lot setbacks can only be approved if the property in question is not as deep as its neighbors.

“He probably has the most depth,” says Jaros, “because they’re all so eroded. So they never should have even considered it.”

As to how the note got in her mailbox, Jaros told Scene that someone who attended the meeting might have sent it to her. “My name has been around building and housing, because I’ve been calling about this property for years.”

Back at Teri Dew’s house, Terry Jaros shows me the pictures she took six months ago, documenting the fall of the neighborhood bench — its literal fall, into the abyss below them. Dew comments on their neighbor’s open garage, weighing whether she should reach out to see if the new resident is home and doing okay. Both women share that there is a new elementary school in the area and several of the homes are being purchased by young families. The women are clearly excited about the neighborhood development, happy to adapt despite what the BZA chairperson claims. But for Dew, a fourteen year resident, and Jaros, who bought her house in 1987, living next door to a two-story home on an eroding lot is simply not an option.

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