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Central Beach residents ready to sue city over claim home used as boarding house

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of March 28, 2013)
Photo: Cars and trucks in front of home on Banyan Road.

Residents of a Central Beach neighborhood are seething over a property owner who they claim is running a boarding house on their street and disturbing the tranquility of the area.

The situation on Banyan Road, they say, creates an unsightly blight of cars, pickups, vans and trailers parked over the home's front lawn and in the grassy median between the sidewalk and street. One resident worries the problem could spread to other beach neighborhoods.

For her part, the home's owner says she is just renting her property to supplement her $10 an hour income answering telephones at a car dealer.

City officials say there is nothing they can to about the property, but suggested neighbors appeal to the city zoning board. They've also asked the owner to have tenants sign leases of at least six months to avoid high turnover and comply with city regulations prohibiting rentals of less than 30 days.

That hasn't placated neighbors who are so upset they hired a lawyer to help them force the city to take action.

Neighbors say it is hard to see the house through all the cars and trucks on many days.

Each time Frank Catania looks out of the front of his home, he sees all the cars and trucks parked on the lawn across Banyan Road. “Every time I open my front door, I see it,” he said.  “I cannot walk through the front of my house without seeing that.”

Neighbors have less-than-affectionately labeled the home a flop house.

They say they are tired of the constant stream of people coming and going from the house. They say people work on their cars in the yard and the driveway is used as a place to stow unregistered vehicles and the motorcycle trailer.

Neighbors admit they chose to live in a non-gated community and away from the stringent regulations that often come with homeowner associations, but they contend the house at 655 Banyan Road must be out of compliance with Vero Beach building and zoning codes.

They are preparing a showdown with the city to prove that the house is being run as a boarding house, something Vero Beach does not allow.

If the house is declared a boarding house, it won’t be the first time.

Ten years ago, a complaint that the home was being run as boarding house was leveled against owner Irene “Renee” Snyder. The case was closed.  Two years later in 2005, the city declared the home a boarding house because four unrelated people lived there. After that, one person moved out.

Today, at least four unrelated people live in the four -bedroom home, but Tim McGarry, the city director of planning and development, said regulating the number of individuals living in a home is unconstitutional. No laws say city residents can't park their cars on the grass in their yards.

The city response to the complaining neighbors is filled with legalese.

“The code defines ‘family’ as a single individual or individuals related by blood, marriage or adoption including foster children.  A ‘boarding house’ is defined as dwelling occupied by more than three unrelated individuals. A boarding house is not permitted use in a single-family zoning district,” states a recent letter sent from McGarry to Catania.

“However, based upon clear precedents established by case law, the city attorney has opined that any such definitions that set a limit on the number of unrelated individuals living together as legally indefensible. Therefore, any such provisions in the city code that define a use are rendered moot and not enforced by the city.

“This opinion is further reinforced by the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 and subsequent amendments that do not allow residential zoning regulations that treat individuals related by blood, marriage or adoption more favorably than unrelated individuals.”

McGarry invited Catania to take the matter further, but at a cost of $610 to file the appeal.

So Catania, a New Jersey lawyer, did just that and hired beachside attorney Michael O’Haire.

“I’m not afraid to sue the city,” said Catania.

Catania’s fear is that more island residents could follow suit, renting out their homes to numerous individuals as a way to make money, effectively ruining the charm and allure of other beachside neighborhoods.

“She could care less about us,” Catania said of Snyder, the offending home's owner.

Not so says Snyder. “I’m just sick about this. I have worked so hard and this is my retirement and he wants to ruin me,” she said.

The Banyan Road house isn’t the first one Snyder rented to individual tenants.  She started doing it at the home she now shares with three men on Shore Drive.   She’s been renting rooms at both homes for the past 20 years.

Standing outside the Banyan Road home early Saturday evening, Snyder glanced at Catania’s house and shook her head. She admitted her house isn’t as nice as his, nor the brand new two-story home built right next door. But this is Central Beach after all, she says.

“We’ve got working class, retired, rich, not so much rich, old, even some young people down the street,” Snyder said.

Snyder also maintains she is not getting rich. Before playing utilities and upkeep and assuming all rooms in both houses are rented, Snyder pulls in $4,460 a month in rent.

“There really is no big pot at the end of the rainbow,” she said.

Snyder said she wants to be a good neighbor.  “I don’t know what is going to happen to me but whatever it is, OK, that is part of life but I do hope I can survive this,” she said. “I didn’t get my money through alimony. I worked for it the hard way and I still am. I found a dump, I fixed it up and I rented it out.”

The inside of the home appeared neat when Snyder allowed Vero Beach 32963 to peek inside but not set foot in the house. There is a small family room with a couch, two chairs and a large television.  There is also a kitchen which each of the tenants may use although all of the rooms Snyder rents come with a small refrigerator and many, if not all of the rooms, have microwaves. All rooms have locks on them. On the outside, there are several patio tables and a few gas grills.

“I don’t believe I am doing anything illegal,” said Snyder. “I realize this is the beach and you have to have some decorum and yes, certainly I have made mistakes (with tenants) … but it is not a house of druggies, or horrible people or drunks.  And yes, I know it is not the Taj Mahal like they have.”

She says the only people who appear to have a problem with it are her neighbors: Catania and Dr. Kirsten Atwood and Harry Atwood who live immediately next door.

The Atwoods spent three years working on their 3,500-square-foot home at the corner of A1A and Banyan Road after buying the lots and tearing down a small home that had been battered by the 2004 hurricanes and abandoned.  They said the Realtor told them their immediate neighbors were renters. That didn’t discourage them, but they say that had no idea of the problems ahead.  

Cars on occasions have driven over the Atwood property. They say they found and removed a car tire that was sitting in their yard. To curb the neighbors from driving over their lawn, the Atwoods placed pointed concrete cones with large reflectors rising from them between the properties.

When the Atwoods called code enforcement to complain that many people constantly came and went from Snyder's 900-square-foot house, they say they were told that the home could actually have many more people living in it:  Two people for every 200 square feet.

That response sent shudders down the spines of the Atwoods, who relocated here from Hobe Sound.

“If they were renting to a single-family, that would be great. But it’s not. They have multiple people coming in and out,” Kirsten Atwood said. “In the evening, it looks like a used car lot.  Not to disparage anyone, but when you go through other neighborhoods and then past ours you wonder what the heck is going on around here?”

One tenant, who asked that her name not be used because of a past abusive relationship, said she feels she is constantly being watched by her Banyan Road neighbors, and more recently the city when it sent in a code enforcement officer after Catania complained.

“I feel violated,” she said. “I just want peace, no drama. I just feel so uncomfortable.”

The woman said she has lived there almost a year and that if Snyder was running a boarding house –where it would not be unusual for people to only stay a night or two – she never would have agreed to move in.

“Never, nope. I wouldn’t be here,” the woman said.

City law does not allow rentals for less than 30 days in single-family zoning areas. Although the city code does not call for it, McGarry said he asked Snyder to have the tenants sign leases of at least six months.

“It has never been a boarding house,” said Snyder. “It has always been shared by roommates.  No short-terms, all long.”

That may be the case although the neighbors contend it is not. Adding fuel to the matter are internet ads looking for tenants that suggest otherwise:

“Vero Beach. Beachside.  Available May 13. $650. Includes  ALL utilities, internet. TV, washer and dryer. Terms are negotiable. Monthly or weekly. Furnished or unfurnished. Very nice, safe  neighborhood. …One block from the beach and three blocks to the Indian River (Riverside Café).