Williams in his garage.
Update: Court sides with home mechanic in neighborhood garage battle
CHARLES WILLIAMS’ HOME GARAGE SURVIVES ANOTHER LEGAL VOLLEY
NOVEMBER 7, 2016
The case was complicated and costly, leaving Williams mired in debt despite his apparent victory. And, of course, the first ruling wasn’t the end of it. The plaintiffs — Williams’ neighbors — remained determined to force Williams to demolish his home garage one way or another. When the court ruled that Williams’ garage wasn’t a nuisance the first time around, the neighbors came back with a number of other issues which basically boiled down to building code and zoning enforcement.
A recent court memorandum, once again written by Delaware Chancellery Court Vice Chancellor Glasscock, seems to once again settle the matter conclusively in favor of Williams.
Here’s how round two went down. The plaintiffs’ (Williams’ neighbors) multi-pronged approach was thus:
First, they alleged that the design and construction of Williams’ garage violated a number of county building codes. But according to Glasscock, the plaintiffs lacked standing to enforce building code violations on the property of others — even if the place was a deathtrap, it wouldn’t represent a threat to their safety. Besides, he added,
“If Williams tomorrow brought the building up to Code, the Plaintiffs would be entirely unsatisfied; their real complaint is with the use of the Shop for auto repair, not the allegedly non-Code-compliant slope of its floor. To that end, they seek an order to remove the Pole Building itself. Equity cannot support such mandatory injunctive relief absent a showing of tangible harm in its absence.”
Man, fun police are the worst, especially when they are:1. actual police or2. attempt to use the power of the courts to crush your dreams.In Delaware resident Charles William’s case, it’s the …
Second, they asserted that the structure and its use as a workshop represented several violations of the zoning code, citing the vintage commercial sings plastered on its sides and its use as an automotive repair shop in an area not zoned for intensive commercial activity.
Again, Glasscock finds in favor of Williams. “Defendant’s neighbors may find these signs attractive, kitschy, or downright obnoxious, according to their tastes. Nothing in the Code, however, prevents their display,” he writes. The key distinction here is that the signs aren’t hawking a commercial service — while they may have been commercial in origin, they are (like the “Authorized Packard Service” sign we once had above our garage) currently little more than fun bits of automobilia not intended to advertise a business.
Further, Williams’ use of the garage, and even his friends’ use of the the garage, represent a “hobby or pass-time activity,” not a commercial use of the property, which would be inappropriate. Ultimately, then, “Williams’ use of the Pole Building as a shop to work on cars with his friends is not prohibited by the Zoning Code.” This holds even though friends used Williams’ space and location to do work on their own vehicles, because these garage-based gatherings were within the scope of what would be considered a social activity.
We can imagine a roughly analogous scenario: Let’s say you installed a fancy, perhaps even commercial-grade, wood-burning pizza oven in your backyard — it doesn’t become a commercial space even if you’re cooking pizzas for friends during gatherings, or letting friends come over from time to time to hang out and cook their own pizzas. If this is permissable in principle, why not a garage? Especially since working on cars is, as Glasscock notes, neither a particularly hazardous nor unusual hobby.
“For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction to remove Defendant’s Pole Building is DENIED. Plaintiffs’ request to enjoin the use of that building for the non-commercial enjoyment of the Defendant, by its use for hobby auto maintenance and repair, is DENIED. Plaintiffs’ request that I order the Defendant to remove the ornamental signs on his property is DENIED. The Plaintiffs have failed to establish that the Defendant has created a nuisance per se, and no relief under that theory is available to the Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs’ request that the Defendant pay their legal fees is DENIED.”
We don’t claim to know all the intricacies of this case — as we previously noted, if Williams is frequently hosting large and unruly car club-style gatherings on his property, and if his guests are racing down the easement to and from his garage, then his neighbors might have something to go on. Despite all the evidence presented by the plaintiffs (including logs of vehicle traffic to and from Williams’ place), the court does not seem to think this is the case, hence the two rulings in Williams’ favor.
Based on the story that presents itself in the two court memorandums, we stand by our original assessment: at some point, this became as much about the battle between neighbors as it was about the legality of a big garage and the appropriateness of the doings within it. While Williams seems to be in the clear, we somehow doubt the court’s ruling will do much to quell the obvious animosity between the parties involved.