Neighborhoods: Judge socks controversial apartment complex with huge fine | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Neighborhoods: Judge socks controversial apartment complex with huge fine

A judge fined the manager of an East Hills apartment complex April 21 for allowing people with emotional or mental disabilities to move in without updating the building's status with the city.

The fine – which is $1,000 a day until the proper permit is secured – is the result of a campaign by neighborhood residents to reverse a change in the use of the Bry-Mard Apartments building, which has gone from being an assisted-living facility for seniors to housing people with mental or emotional disabilities.

"It either needs to be what it was supposed to be or it needs to go before the public," says Gina Robinson, president of the East Tri-Borough Neighborhood Association.

A vice president of the building's management company, Ralph Falbo Inc., was also fined $1,000 a day for the same charge, failing to secure a certificate of occupancy. And, at the same hearing, the manager and the vice president were both fined $300 for a pile of rubbish and debris that accumulated on the property.

A lawyer who is representing the two men said they will appeal the grand-a-day decisions.

In 1989 -- under different ownership -- Bry-Mard was granted an occupancy permit that describes the complex as "37 dwelling units (including one unit for a resident manager) for the elderly." Falbo took over management of the building in March 2007, but did not apply for a new certificate of occupancy.

Since that time, neighbors have complained that Falbo changed the building from a senior facility to a group home for mentally disabled people without filing for a change-of-use permit.

During a 2007 city council hearing, ETBNA presented city council with a log of police complaints that showed 29 incidents -- ranging from domestic disputes to one stabbing -- had been reported in the previous seven months. (See Apartment Complex Situation, City Paper, Nov. 8, 2007.)

ETBNA goaded the city to take legal action as well -- a strategy that proved successful in getting Bry-Mard to submit a new zoning application.

Judge Kevin Cooper -- who presides over Pittsburgh's 12th and 13th wards' magisterial districts -- gave the company a month to file a zoning application with the city's Planning Commission at an earlier hearing related to his April 21 decision.

Bry-Mard's owners submitted an application on April 17, while still protesting against the need for a new permit. A letter attached to the application asserts that the paperwork was being filled out at "the request of the Court and not because of any belief that the current use is not in accord with the current occupancy certificate."

Building managers contend that since Bry-Mard is occupied by a combination of disabled and elderly residents, the building is in compliance with the original permit. Falbo vice president of property management Duane Hampton, who refused to comment after the judgment, testified that approximately eight of the 36 current residents are over 62 years old.

Bry-Mard's primary property manager Phillip Manion did not attend the hearing and did not return a call to his office.

In addition to the rubbish and no-certificate charges, Manion and Hampton were accused of allowing the grass to overgrow at Bry-Mard and failing to even apply for a certificate of occupancy.

Because Bry-Mard submitted its zoning application, however, Cooper found Manion and Hampton not guilty of failing to apply for the certificate of occupancy.

On the overgrown weeds and grass charges, the city conceded that no evidence was presented to support that claim.

Susan Tymoczko, the city's zoning administrator, says that the zoning application is being reviewed by the staff. If it receives approval there (based on its technical aspects), the application will face a public hearing before either the Zoning Board of Adjustments or the Planning Commission.

Robinson and the East Tri-Borough Neighborhood Association have pledged to continue their battle against Bry-Mard throughout the approval process. The building's new tenants, the group claims, are turning the area into a crime zone.

"Unless you can document that there is likely to be a detrimental effect on health and safety, it's subjective," Robinson says. "On this particular property, we can prove it."

Robinson says that Bry-Mard is "saturating" the neighborhood with people with mental or emotional problems: There's already a 14-unit community home for such men less than a block away from the Bry-Mard complex.

In its letter to zoning officials, Falbo warns that if the new permit is denied, "management would have no option but to close the building, leaving another unoccupied structure in the community."

"Fine, close it," Robinson responds. "We'd rather you sell it to the community as a land trust."

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