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Tiny lot squabble poses much bigger questions for Buffalo building requirements

Timothy M. Sick’s retirement dream house is quickly becoming neighbor Sandra A. Hodala’s house of horrors.

“I bought a lot at auction. I’ve met all the building requirements,” Sick says. “I have the right to build.”

But if he builds, Hodala says, his house will be too close to hers on Linwood Avenue.

“It would damage the quality of my life and the value of my property,” Hodala said. “He’s a bully.”

This Buffalo neighborhood dispute on the north end of Linwood at West Delavan Avenue is nasty.

But the fate of Sick’s small residential lot – less than a twentieth of an acre – is bigger than whether Sick can build a house that forces Hodala to basically walk down an alleyway any time she wants to leave her home.

The disagreement also may have far reaching implications for thousands of other undersized lots throughout the city – those grassy parcels that remain after the city demolishes burned-out or dilapidated houses.

Over the last two years, Sick’s plan to build a 980-square-foot combined slab house and attached garage on an 1,800-square foot corner lot was first turned down by the city Building Department and then twice rejected by the city Zoning Board of Appeals. The agencies cited the small lot size, setbacks that didn’t meet code, and a design out of character with the neighborhood.

But the city Law Department overruled the Building Department and Zoning Board. City zoning law requires a minimum 4,000 square feet of property – about a tenth of an acre – that is a minimum of 40 feet wide for building single-family homes.

But the Law Department ruled that Sick’s property is not subject to the 4,000/40 rule because there was a house on his now-vacant property when the zoning law was enacted in 1950. Based on that exemption in the zoning ordinance, Sick can build as long as he meets setback rules and Historic Preservation neighborhood requirements, the Law Department ruled.

The ruling took many in City Hall by surprise, including leaders of the city’s Building Department, Zoning Board and Common Council. It not only indicates confusion within City Hall, but also raises questions about whether other properties proposed for small lots were improperly prohibited in the past, and whether other requests to build on small lots now will be approved routinely.

Sick, a landscape designer who has rehabbed more than 80 houses in Buffalo and Florida, said his situation is not unique, citing a 512-square-foot house built in 2006 on a 2,500-square-foot Bryant Street lot and a 1,810-square-foot home built on a 2,700-square foot Bird Avenue lot in 2011.

But several city lawmakers say they were repeatedly told over the years that many lots remaining after demolition are too small to build homes on under today’s codes, and that double lots are needed.

“I never saw it in writing, but I’ve heard it over and over in council chambers and in meetings over the past five years,” said Council President Darius G. Pridgen.

“We are shocked,” said Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera. “We’ve been told you can’t build on the little lots. That you need double lots. Does this mean this can be done everywhere? That you can build on a 23-foot wide lot?”

The Building Department apparently asked for the legal ruling at Sick’s request.

“Our initial reaction was to deny,” James W. Comerford Jr., the city’s commissioner of permits and inspections, said of Sick’s application. “The legal opinion from the Law Department trumped our action.”

The head of the Zoning Board was also surprised.

“It took us all by surprise,” said Zoning Board Chairman James A. Lewis.

Everyone doesn’t agree with the law department’s ruling.

“If a building is destroyed,” said attorney Arthur J. Giacalone, who represented Hodala before the Zoning Board, “you have one year to replace it.”

In this case, the house previously on Sick’s property caught fire and was demolished in 1979, Giacalone said.

Others, however, say the provision Giacalone points to refers to nonconforming building uses, such as a commercial business in a residential zone; not nonconforming lot size.

Pridgen asked the Law Department for further explanation of its ruling.

“I want to make sure all departments in the city are on the same page, and that we are giving people accurate information,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sick’s proposal for 728 Linwood – revised to address Preservation Board guidelines – goes before the Preservation Board on Thursday for what could be final approval. That board deals with aesthetics, not zoning issues. His one-story house, as now planned, would be 16 feet wide, on a lot 23 feet wide, and be about 7 feet from Hodala’s home at 726 Linwood.

Hodala’s approximately 2,000-square-foot, two-story house is also on a relatively small lot, about 600 square feet bigger and 6 feet wider than Sick’s. Hodala’s home has one entrance, a side door facing Delavan. Sick’s home would block her view of Delavan, and effectively create an alleyway between the two properties – four feet on her side of the property line and 3 feet on his – for her to walk down to get to the sidewalk on Linwood. Sick said he’s planning to build a fence between the properties, leaving her with a 4-foot walkway.

Hodala’s house, according to some people familiar with Linwood homes, perhaps also had a front door entrance when built in 1905, but has had only a side entrance as far back as anyone in the current dispute can remember. She bought the house in 2013 for $120,000. Sick bought his lot at city auction for $500 in 2012.

“This has been two years of stress,” Hodala said. “He’s been denied three times. Why is he allowed to continue?”

“I want to build a home for when I retire,” said Sick, 55, who said he has hip and other joint problems. “I designed a small handicapped-adaptable house that is super green. It’s a lovely home.”