by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, November 2014) At the October 17th City Planning Commission Meeting in Cleveland City Hall the application of A & E Auto Services and Sales at 4157 Lorain Avenue for a conditional use permit to continue operating at their current location was turned down. In 2011 the area of Lorain Avenue where the used car lot is located changed to a Pedestrian Retail Overlay (PRO) District, which doesn’t allow used car lots. The car lot would have been “grandfathered” and allowed to stay, except the owners never applied for a certificate of occupancy for the site.
The Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny A & E Auto Services and Sales’ application for a conditional use permit in the Pedestrian Retail Overlay District on Lorain Avenue.
Testifying before the City Planning Commission, Tony and Ted Perez, owners of A & E Auto Services and Sales at 4157 Lorain Avenue, stated that in thirteen and a half years nobody has ever approached them to tell them their business didn’t have certificate of occupancy and was therefore illegally operating. Ted Perez said in all the years they have been running the business, “Nobody reached out” to tell us we needed an occupancy permit. He said, now, he believes they are “running us out” because a business down the street needs parking,” he said in reference to the Platform Beer Co. opening nearby his business.
Ted and Tony Perez noted that the location has been a car lot for over 30 years. They said they complied with landscaping changes for the front of their building and have closed off the Lorain Avenue entrance of the lot. They said they were minority owners of the business and never have had a problem.
City Planning Commission Chairman Anthony Coyne said to the Perez brothers that saying they didn’t know the certificate of occupancy was required “didn’t hold water.” He said ignorance of the law was no excuse for not following the law. Coyne told the Perez brothers the new Pedestrian Retail Overlay District did not allow used car lots and thus they were not entitled to a conditional use permit. He suggested it was time to find a new location. “This part of Lorain Avenue has changed,” he said.
At the Planning Commission hearing Tony Perez also wanted to make it clear there was an effort to run his business out of the neighborhood because another business wanted his property. Before learning he didn’t have a certificate of occupancy and had to go before the Planning Commission because of the Pedestrian Retail Overlay District, Perez says he was scheduled to go before the Board of Zoning Appeals to apply for a variance for his used car lot. Perez says he learned of an August 6th block club meeting discussing his property and attended the meeting where residents were generally supportive of his used car lot getting a variance to stay in the neighborhood. That changed when Ward 3 Councilman Joe Cimperman warned neighbors that if Perez’s used car lot got a variance, then McDonald’s would get their variance approved.
Tremont activist Henry Senyak, testifying on behalf of the Perez brothers said thought it was unfair for Councilman Cimperman to try to link the variance approval of Perez’s car lot to McDonald’s, he said the car lot should be judged on its own merit. Chairman Coyne said, “I agree with you.”
Senyak also argued that a complaint about A & E registered with the City of Cleveland Building and Housing Department prior to the creation of the Pedestrian Retail Overlay District in 2011 was never followed up on. He wondered why they were not cited at that time for an illegal use (not having a certificate of occupancy) yet now that the PRO was in place they were being cited for the same violation. He suggested that if they had been cited earlier they could have applied for a variance before the Board of Zoning Appeals and if approved obtained a certificate of occupancy. Now with the PRO District in place, that was not possible.
Senyak noted that there were ten other used car lots in the PRO District on Lorain Avenue and only seven had certificates of occupancy. He suggested that this was selective enforcement and the city and Ohio City Inc. were using their muscle to eliminate a minority business.
Ohio City Executive Director Tom McNair making the case for citing the A & E Auto Services and Sales lot, said the used car lot was never a legally established use. He said the lot had a history of illegally parked cars on the public right of way and using the public sidewalk to move cars onto another parcel. He said used car lot was not targeted, but the investigation was triggered when a local architect called to complain about a parking lot being built next to the used car lot. While the parcel in question was under different ownership than the car lot, it was discovered that the used car lot was operating illegally without a certificate of occupancy. McNair said OCI would notify Building and Housing and ask them to cite other illegally operating used car lots in the area as well.
McNair says the process to create the Pedestrian Retail Overlay on Lorain Avenue was a public process and the Perez brothers could have attended the public meetings.
Ohio City Board member Helen Smith said that board members had questioned staff and were confident that OCI staff had fairly and adequately notified businesses along Lorain Avenue of meetings on the proposed Pedestrian Retail Overlay District. She suggested the reason that the Perez brothers did not know of the public meetings was lack of communication by their landlord. She said the notices went to the property owners.
City of Cleveland Planning Commission Director Freddy Collier said city should be more aggressive in helping assure that businesses have certificates of occupancy, licenses and permits needed to operate legally. He said, “We are not in the business of attacking small businesses.” He said he felt empathy with the car lot owners and their plight and thought the city could perhaps develop certain locations where used car lots could be located together.
City of Cleveland Neighborhood Planner Trevor Hunt noted the business was renting the property and did not own it. He said he would be happy to work with the business owners to help them relocate.
Following the meeting, Neighborhood Planner Trevor Hunt met with the Perez brothers and renewed his offer to help them find a new location within two miles of their current location. Hunt agreed that the “city’s processes and procedures need to be modernized.” He suggested that a computerized application process could help businesses check to see if they have a certificate of occupancy and all the permits they need. In the meantime, Hunt said, “business owners should come to City Hall and check and see if they have a Certificate of Occupancy.”