The Stockbridge Saga



August 20, 2010

Reprinted with permission from justacargeek.blogspot.com

FRIDAY, MAY 28, 2010
The Stockbridge Saga, Part 1 - The History...

Memorial Day weekend is here and I'm going to take a few days off. Below is something I wrote last Wednesday and Thursday. It's long, so I've broken it up into 3 parts. At first it may seem like a pointless, rambling, tale about my friendship with Jeff. To a certain extent, it is. But, by the time Part 3 posts, you'll see that it's much more than that. " It's about small town politics and the rights of an indegarding what he can and can't do on his property...

Now the first of December was covered with snow,
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting,
With ten miles behind me
And ten thousand more to go . . .
(James Taylor - "Sweet Baby James")

That song, James Taylor's first solo hit, is most likely the only reason 99.99% of the world knows that Stockbridge, Massachusetts, exists.

I know it exists because my friend, Jeff, lives there. I also spent a surreal evening there last Tuesday night...

A little history...

I met Jeff 25 or 26 years ago. I had an old Alfa Romeo at the time and one of my favorite activities was to just go for a drive in it. No destination in mind, no map, no time limit... Just fill it with gas and go for a drive.

My girlfriend at the time lived in New Hampshire and would come visit me on the weekends. We woke up one Saturday morning and decided to "go for a drive". We packed our toothbrushes and some clean underwear. (This was a tradition. Most of the time our "drives" lasted for an afternoon, maybe into the early evening. Once, we went a little too far and wound up in Northern Maine. I was too tired to drive back that night so we grabbed a hotel room. Finding toothpaste and a toothbrush in the middle-of-the-night, in the middle-of-nowhere Maine, is not too difficult. The one convenience store in the town had that. Finding underwear in the middle-of-the-night, in the middle-of-nowhere Maine, is impossible. From that point on, we left my house "prepared". That's probably more than you needed to know, huh?) This particular Saturday, we wound up in a town called Pittsfield, Massachusetts. As we approached a stop light, I spotted another Alfa Romeo. "Hey look", I said to my girlfriend, "Another Alfa". As we pulled up next to it my girlfriend looked over at the car and exclaimed "Oh my god, the driver could be your brother. He looks just like you." Jeff did look a lot like me (I have aged better. That's now a matter of public record, by the way. - More on that later.) Jeff, whose girlfriend was with him, pulled into the parking lot of a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop. There's not much better in life than Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Alfa Romeos, so I followed him into the lot.

Jeff and I hit it off immediately. Our girlfriends hit it off immediately. We spent some time talking and as we left, Jeff handed me a card. "I own a repair shop. If you ever need work done on your car, call me." Hell, my car was an Alfa Romeo, of course I was going to need work done to it. I called him a few weeks later.

I spent a lot of time at Jeff's shop. We became close friends. After awhile money stopped changing hands. Jeff would just ask that I pay for parts, which he got for me at cost. Over the years, I met a couple of other car geeks at his shop; Tony, an all around good guy with a taste for Alfa Romeos and Volvos, John, a BMW 2002 and Volvo owner, and Rick, another Alfaholic - with an incredible Montreal - who had decided to take up SCCA racing in a GTV and along with Jeff was building the car in the shop. The shop was major force in Rick’s successful SCCA campaign. Together and separately, we all hung out at Jeff's shop. It was sort of our own little car club.

Owning a business is not all that easy. I know, I've owned one for 28 years. In my case, a retail store. As long as I pay the rent, the utilities and keep the tax people happy, I can survive. In the case of an automobile repair shop there's all that and more. You need to satisfy the EPA, the DOT and more. By 1994 Jeff had had enough. He had enough money, it was time to retire.

SATURDAY, MAY 29, 2010
The Stockbridge Saga, Pt. 2 - The Mother Hen and the Chickensh*t Town

Jeff closed his shop, but didn't lose his love of cars. The BMWs, Ferrari, Land Rovers and assorted Alfas he owns or has owned, will attest to that.

Jeff had a small garage area under his house. It wasn't especially roomy and had an 8' or less ceiling. It wasn't the best place to work on cars like the ones Jeff owns. Jeff decided that he was going to build a garage. The designs were drawn up, the plans were submitted, everything was approved and in 2005 the garage went up. It's an impressive structure. It is one of the classiest looking garages you'll ever see.

Jeff is a lot like a mother hen when it comes to cars. I talk with him 2 or 3 times a week. The conversation almost always ends or begins with "How's your car running?". If you're his friend, your car is his car. He wants to know that everything is OK with it. If I mention that it's making a noise or doing something odd, his response is always, "Bring it by, let's take a look at it." He'll throw it on his lift (yes, his garage has a lift), show me what the problem is and repair it if necessary. If it needs parts, Jeff will often be able to get them for me at cost. Sometimes I bring my own parts.

Most of my time at Jeff's house is spent discussing cars. Jeff's knowledge of cars is extraordinary. If I don't understand what he's telling me, he'll often put one of his cars (or my car, if appropriate) on the lift and show me the part he's talking about and how it works. Much of my knowledge of the inner-workings of cars comes from Jeff.

In the first post I called that the people who hung around Jeff's garage a "club". It's really not a club in the traditional sense of the word. There are no dues no meetings and many of the club members rarely, if ever, see each other. Jeff's garage is a just place where grown men (and the occasional woman) can occasionally get together and talk about their passion; cars. Sometimes we do a little work on our cars with the mother hen / professor, Jeff, watching over us. We always learn things. Best of all, it's a good time.

There are people who don't understand why Jeff does what he does. I understand. He enjoys it. "You take care of your friends" is his philosophy, my philosophy and, I would think, the philosophy of anyone with friends.

Apparently, some of the friendless people who don't understand this are his neighbors. They decided that since people occasionally stop by Jeff's house and put their car up on his lift, he must be running a commercial repair shop in a residential zoned area. They called the building inspector.

The building inspector issued a "Cease and Desist Order".

The pertinent part of the order states this:

“Given that the principal use of this address is residential, the use of the garage must be consistent with section of 4.8 of the zoning bylaws, This section states in part:

Subject to the limitations contained in this bylaw a related minor use, building or structure which is customarily incidental and subordinate to any lawful principal use shall be permitted on the same lot with the building to which it is an accessory, provided that it does not alter the character of the premises nor be detrimental to the neighborhood.

Accordingly, you are hereby ordered to cease and desist all work (including, without limitation, repair, restoration and refurbishment) on any automobile, other vehicle, or part thereof not owned by a resident of this address.”

(Interestingly, as far Jeff knows, the building inspector never actually came to look at anything. The order was based solely on the complaints of the neighbors.)

In other words, friends and family members not living at his address, can no longer use Jeff, his expertise, or his garage. Period.

Now, had this Cease and Desist Order said that Jeff had to stop running a commercial repair shop out of his house, it wouldn't have been a big deal. It would have been like telling me that I couldn't sell compact discs out of my house. It would be no big deal. I don't do that. But this Cease and Desist Order said that there was to be no work done on any cars, belonging to anybody other than Jeff, for any reason. Period. If I stopped by his house popped the hood on my car and asked Jeff to tell me if I installed some component correctly, he was in violation of the Cease and Desist Order. (I should mention here that Arlo Guthrie's opus, "Alice's Restaurant" took place in Stockbridge. Not much seems to have changed in 40 years.) As I've mentioned, I work in the music industry. I often give my friends a pile of promotional (free) CDs when they stop by my house. Apparently, if I lived in Stockbridge, doing so would mean I'm running a commercial music store out of my house.

Not too surprisingly, Jeff decided to appeal this in front of the Stockbridge Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).

Tomorrow... The ZBA meeting.

SUNDAY, MAY 30, 2010
The Stockbridge Saga, Part 3 - We're Pretty Certain You're Not Doing Anything Wrong, But Stop Doing It Anyway...

On Tuesday night the Stockbridge ZBA held its 4th hearing regarding this matter.

For those of us who came to support Jeff, it was a bit like a reunion. Like I said in the earlier post, this is not a "club" in the traditional sense of the word. Rick was there. The last time I saw him was 2007 at Lime Rock. I had no idea he had stopped racing. Tony was there. We exchange an occasional e-mail, but I can't remember when the last time I saw him was. Chris, a newer "club member" was there. He has an incredible and eclectic collection of cars (Everything from Bugattis - yes, that's plural - to an Amilcar, a Fiat Topolino, a Talbo - if you haven't seen a Talbo, check out this 1994 Car & Driver article - and many others). There were a few people there that I had never met. Prior to the hearing coming to order we stood around and talked about cars. No real surprise there.

The opposing side were a dour bunch. They didn't talk much to each other and they certainly didn't talk to us. I found myself standing next to one of them in the hallway. I said something about how nice it was being in an air conditioned building after being outside in the heat. He didn't say a word back.

The meeting was called to order. The first person to speak was the local tow truck operator. This was interesting because he didn't want to be there. For all intents and purposes, he was subpoenaed by the ZBA. He was asked how many times each year he delivered or picked up cars in the neighborhood. "40 or 50 times", was his response. How many times did he go to Jeff's house to deliver or pick up cars? "4 or 5", he answered. Did he remember which cars they were? "Yes, twice it was Jeff's dad's car, twice it was one of Jeff's". Did he know of anyone who had their car brought there for repair? "No", was his answer. I have to give this guy a lot of credit. He most likely lost 35 or 45 calls a year from that neighborhood by testifying truthfully.

The opposition stood up and said their pieces. One person had supposedly hired a private investigator to look into what cars were coming and going from Jeff's property. The PI allegedly found a car belonging to a man from Albany, NY. In a spoof call, he supposedly had gotten that person to say that Jeff was working on his car and was a "very good mechanic". I use the words "allegedly" and "supposedly" because the report was dated 2004. Jeff's garage didn't go up until 2005. One neighbor wanted to see Jeff's tax returns, to see how he derived his income. I don't know about you, but there is no way in hell I would show my tax returns to my neighbors (and I like mine). I couldn't believe the ballsiness of the request. One by one they droned on about people and cars visiting Jeff. One neighbor admitted that he can't see Jeff's property from his house (I don't think any of them can, as the neighborhood is very wooded.) It had turned from "Jeff works on cars at his house" to "Jeff has too many people visiting him". Too many people drive down the road to see Jeff. Too many of Jeff's friends drive "high end" (their words) cars. Something must be going on.

Being a friend and a frequent visitor, I can say with all honesty that virtually everything they said was false. Period.

We, the "club members" there to support Jeff, got up and said our pieces. I opened by saying that I had known Jeff for 25 years. I mentioned that I had aged better than he had. The ZBA members chuckled, the "club members" laughed. The opposition sat stone faced. One by one we all said essentially the same thing: Yes, we visit Jeff. Yes, we sometimes do some minor work on our cars there. Yes, Jeff often helps us. No, we never paid him a dime.

Hook me up to a polygraph machine and ask me the same questions and I'd pass the test with flying colors. (Including the part about having aged better than Jeff.)

After all the testimony, the ZBA members spoke. They all agreed that there was no reason to believe that Jeff was running a repair shop from his house. (In fact, they were the ones who called us a "club". I stole their terminology.) They all agreed that Jeff's garage was an impressive, clean, well designed building that violated no zoning laws and was well within code. They even agreed that it seemed to have been built with the neighborhood in mind. They all seemed to agree that Jeff was a good guy.

Then they took their vote. I figured it was a slam dunk in Jeff's favor.

Wrong-o.

While they agreed that everything was on the up and up, they seemed to feel, like the neighbors, that Jeff has too many friends with nice cars. We, the half dozen or so "club members", were too many acquaintances for Jeff to have. By a vote of 4 to 1, the ZBA upheld the cease and desist order. If anyone stops by Jeff's house, they had better not pop the hood on their car for any reason. (Including a jump start, which could be a problem for those with British cars, I suppose.) The city will impose a hefty fine on Jeff if we do.

Now, there are probably some of you who are thinking, "Welcome to the real world, Dave. A world where car repair isn't done for free and working on your own car means using a creeper and a set of jack stands." I fully understand that. I'm lucky to have a friend like Jeff. If all this means that I pay for my car repairs or do them at my own house without a lift, so be it. That's all that will change. I'll still talk to Jeff 2 or 3 times a week and we'll still talk about cars. (We may talk about his neighbors a bit now, too.) Instead of a call or an e-mail, I may drive my "high end" car (a 15 year old BMW - Which we will not be working on at Jeff's house) to see him, just to piss off the neighbors. ("Damn it, Jeff and his friend are sitting on the deck and they're doing... nothing. Doesn't that violate some law?")

The point of this is not me and my life. The point of this is what a person is allowed to do on his own property. I'm not anarchist or a Libertarian. I believe that there should be certain limits on what can and cannot be done on your property. (I mean, really, would you want your next door neighbor to open a rendering plant next to your house?) And in the grand scheme of things, with the the Gulf of Mexico beginning to look like the Gulf of Texaco (Yeah, I know, wrong oil company, but it sort of rhymes) and everything else that's going on in the world, this is extremely minor. Still, it needs to be pointed out.

There's a little irony here. I remember a call I got a few years ago from Jeff. He was in Ohio visiting John (the BMW 2002 / Volvo fan mentioned in Part 1 of this rambling post). He lost one of the fuel pumps on his 750iL just west of Buffalo, but managed to drive the car the rest of the way on 6 cylinders since it was a dual redundant system. Two days later he was able to fix the car in John's driveway - outside in the cold and the snow - and drive it home on all 12 cylinders. Today, if it was John visiting Jeff in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the same thing happened, John would not be able to fix his car in Jeff's driveway or in his warm garage. (I should also mention here that when Jeff told me on the phone that his car had a "dual redundant fuel system", I had no clear idea of what he meant. His response was, "Stop by the house after I get back and I'll show you." It's not real clear if he'd be allowed to do that today.)

Jeff has chosen to take this to court. As far as I can tell, no one has taken a case like this to court before. This could very well be a test case. If this decision is upheld, it's possible you'll see towns trying to pass ordinances and/or bylaws saying that you can't fix or restore your own car in your home garage, let alone help a friend or family member.

Again, I'm not a conspirasist or an anti-government, anti-zoning law type of person. In this case though, the town of Stockbridge took things too far. The thought of what the outcome of this case could have on car geeks, collectors, hobbyists, amateur racers, etc., is chilling.

I'll keep you posted.(If anyone reading this is involved in the media and wants to speak to Jeff about this, shoot me an e-mail and I'll put you in touch with him.)

Comments

  1. Eloise Very true! Makes a cahgne to see someone spell it out like that. :)

    Very true! Makes a cahgne to see someone spell it out like that. :)