Resident sues city

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Suffolk woman has filed a $650,000 lawsuit alleging that the city illegally razed the building that once housed her family’s charter bus business.

The city flattened the East Washington Street building on or around Sept. 27, just three days after property owner Marie R. Duke received a letter advising that the structure had become a “imminent danger … and that city must proceed with demolition” immediately, according to the suit filed Tuesday in Suffolk Circuit Court.

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The building, which for decades housed Suffolk City Transit Lines, was damaged in December 2004, when a heavy snowfall caused part of the building’s roof to collapse, said Duke’s attorney, Moody E. “Sonny” Stallings.

Within days, Duke hired a structural engineering firm to get repair estimates and began working to obtain the necessary permits to rebuild, he said.

In several meetings during the summer and early fall, Duke provided the city with requested information, including a $100,000 repair estimate from a Class A contractor and building plans, in order to secure a building permit, according to the suit.

During that time, the city’s Neighborhood Development Services department issued several demolition notices. Then, on Sept. 10, the city ran a legal advertisement in the Suffolk News-Herald saying the city would proceed with demolition on Oct. 18 unless Duke received the building permits.

But the city razed the building in late September, apparently after the building received additional “catastrophic structure failure,” according to the suit.

NDS Director David Freeman notified Duke of the city’s intent to move forward in a letter dated Sept. 20; she received the letter on Sept. 24, Stallings said. The city issued a demolition permit to Triad Demolition on Sept. 26, the same day that Duke met with Stallings and had a court date set to protect the building, he said.

Stallings questioned whether the city violated state law in its handling of the situation.

“I’m shocked the city didn’t follow state code,” he said. “The city did everything it could to throw obstacles in Mrs. Duke’s way.

“ …The city had a bulldozer out there within 48 hours. There is a lot going on that we don’t understand here.”

Dennis Craff, the city’s communications director, said the city’s decision to raze the building earlier than planned was due to the additional damage.

“It became a public safety issue at that point,” he said. “The building was collapsing. All of a sudden, it became a health and safety issue.”

Months before the building was damaged the first time, a representative from the city’s economic development department contacted Duke and told her a prospective buyer was interested in the property, Stallings said. She told them she wasn’t interested in selling, he added.

Even though the building is gone, Duke says she had no intention of selling the property.

“I own it, free and clear, and I’m not selling,” she said. The decision as to whether to rebuild the building, which she had recently leased to a bus operator, will be up to her children, she added.

The city’s actions destroyed a source of income for her, she added.

“I’m a senior .. and this was my livelihood,” she said. “It hurts, …especially since I complied with everything the city asked for.

“They (city officials) tell me to do one thing and they do another.”