Help with neighbor filing unjustified complaints to DOB

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Topic: Help with neighbor filing unjustified complaints to DOB

Brownstone Renovation January 14, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Help with neighbor filing unjustified complaints to DOB

Hi all-
Before embarking on a reno project that will likely require permits/filing, I’d like some advice on how to best deal with a nettlesome neighbor who is unfortunately gumming things up for me at the DOB. I bought my townhouse 8 years ago from a developer who had bought the property the prior year, upgrading the mechanicals and conducting light renovations. The owner of the attached townhouse next door had wanted to buy the house himself, but failed. He apparently had some legal entanglements with the developer, which were resolved before I bought the house.
A few years after I bought the house, I smelled gas in my bedroom and my kids’ bedroom. The gas company traced the source of the leak to my neighbor’s gas fireplace, which he had apparently not attempted to use for quite a few years. The gas company deemed it unsafe and ordered it shut. The neighbor, upset over being unable to use his fireplace, claimed that the developer from whom I bought the house (several years earlier) had knocked a brick out of his flue when installing an electrical box on my side, which is why it was leaking gas into my bedroom. He provided no evidence for the claim (and my house received all electrical signoffs from the DOB when a C of O was issued before I bought it).
He nonetheless insisted that I open up the wall from my side to inspect the chimney, move a small electrical box that he alleged must be intruding into the flue and replace the brick. I told him that I had no desire to stand in the way of his being able to use his own fireplace, but if he needed to inspect his chimney, then he should do it from his own home, and that if he intended to use it, it needed to be lined up to code. After all, these are toxic fumes spewing into bedrooms.
So, several more years passed, with the neighbor quite bitter that I was somehow preventing him from using his chimney. He occasionally renewed his demand that rip open my wall so he could look at it, and I have continued to refuse. Suddenly this year — years after the gas leak and 8 years after I bought the house — I discovered that a complaint had be filed at the DOB over an “illegal electrical box” (of course, no mention was made of his leaking gas fireplace). The DOB has not been in my home to inspect this (bogus) complaint; I have been cautious about letting inspectors into my house, given horror stories I have heard about homeowners being hit with high bills for whatever unrelated items an inspetor may see fit to demand. (I have nothing to hide in my home, but why invite in trouble?)
With that long windup, to my dilemma. I am contemplating a renovation that will probably require DOB filing. I have an open complaint, which I assume must be closed before I get work permits. I am not sure what that will take, and even if it were to be closed, have a neighbor who may try and cause me delays and headaches by filing XYZ complaints throughout. I have three kids and do not want to extend reno time. I would appreciate considered thoughts/advice from the community.
I think I can either a) ignore him, move ahead with my plans, try and close this complaint, and deal with whatever he may try to do when/if it arises; b) play offense, engage in tit-for-tat warfare with the DOB and make him spend money until he goes away; c) try to come up with some accommodation (though this is pretty zero sum, not sure what that could be).
This guy is quite unreasonable and not entirely rational, and I have mostly learned to ignore him. But now he’s becoming my problem.

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I wouldn’t worry too much about the bogus electrical box complaint but it sounds like your neighbor will be a headache during your renovation. He will most likely call and make bogus complaints during the renovation so your best bet is to just make sure that your plans are accurate and the job is filed correctly. Most important of all explain the situation to your contractors and make sure that whoever you hire to do the work is used to keeping a clean job site and following plans exactly as drawn. You basically need to make sure that everything is done correctly so that the DOB has nothing to hassle you about. Many of our projects involve neighbors like this and as long as everything is done correctly the DOB will end up showing up to investigate his complaints and quickly leave. Just make sure you don’t give the DOB inspectors any reason to linger (messy job sites and unproffesional contractors will cause the inspector to start poking around). Good luck.

Yes, and after a few bad complaints that are proved to nonsense, DOB will not bother anymore.

make sure that no work is started before a permit is issued, a stamped and sealed original set of plans is on site at all times, all work conforms to said plans, and you should have no problems

Complaints are not the same thing as an actual violation.  Uninspected complaints are usually dismissed after two attemps to inspect the home have been made and entry was not achieved.   
That said I do not see why you would not want the wall outlet to be checked by your contractor… 

While the above postings are correct I wanted to make a different suggestion.

I believe you posted a related query some months ago?

It didn’t register on me at the time but maybe, just maybe your neighbor isn’t so unreasonable after all.

Depending on the year and type of construction that your houses were built, there is a good chance that there is in that one location a party wall of only a single brick’s thickness.

Assuming that your buildings are similar? and may have been built at the same time? I have seen instances in which the multiple flues are constructed in a surprising fashion.

Typically party walls were built two bricks thick, all except the area of the flues. Structurally the party wall detours around the perimeter of the flues into your house. This leaves only one brick thickness in the back of the firebox.

These fireboxes were never designed to accomodate wood fires, They aren’t deep enough to draft smoke up the chimney. Nevertheless, modern day brownstoners are wrong to assume the brick wall they see is immensely thick and strong.

An un-suspecting electrician installing an outlet on a party wall, which typically is rough and finish plaster on brick (no stud wall) figures he will recess his receptacle by chopping out one measly brick out of what to him is that, what did I call it – immensely thick and strong – wall. When he removes that brick he seeswhat looks like a metal sheet, so he figures he’s good to go.

Fast forward to the first time the neighbor fires up his gas appliance, and bingo, difference of opinion.

So he could be correct. He still would have to seal his side, and his gas appliance can’t leak. But it might go a long way to clearing the air if you were to check your side first. Removing a receptacle isn’t a big deal, and forget that your reno got clearance from DOB.

I am not alleging incompetence or negligence on the part of the electrician, It’s just a roomful of electricians and inspectors wouldn’t know an old house if it bit them

what about arranging with the neighbor to have a reputable chimney company drop a camera down the flue and see if there is an actual break in the lining? Would probably cost a few hundred dollars but might make sense to do that just to be sure.
Also, I second what others have said, based on personal experience – if your permits are in order and your contractor is doing the job right, inspectors will come, do a walk-through, take a look at the plans to confirm, and leave. After a few calls from the same source, the DOB will not be so willing to go out to a job site for “nuisance calls.” 

Thank you all for the replies. brucef, yes, I believe I did post on this a good while ago; what is new is his DOB complaint and my own reno plans. Who knows, you (and my neighbor) may be right that an  electrical outlet was placed in the party wall where his chimney is. It is all inside my wall and behind a bookshelf that I have no desire to dismantle. Even if that were correct, he would still have to line his chimney — a point I have made to him repeatedly, and which seems to just make him angry when I do.
silvermax, I have suggested just that to him – get a chimney guy to look from above, or to open up his own wall and take a look. He doesn’t want to spend any money to do it, which makes me suspect that he hopes his theory is correct, and that he can repair/replace a brick from my side, and then use the chimney without lining it properly. Since he won’t commit to bringing his chimney up to code — he does not deny it is unlined, and gets irrationally angry when I say that it needs to be to operate safely — I have seen little reason to rip up my wall.
Does anyone know if I need to have an open complaint closed or inspected first before getting other plans approved?

If you believe the circumsances I describe might be appropriate, please reconsider your approach.

From your tone, which I have to read between the lines to guess at, you sound as though you are convinced of your correctness. Your reliance on officialdom and insisting “he” does everything to code tells me you are simultaneously too trusting and too accusative.

I tried to tactfully suggest that inadvertently your workmen (yes I read, this was prior to purchase) may have compromised your family’s safety, and no, it isn’t too much “bother” to make this right on your side regardless of your neighbors future actions.

Many conditions that have existed for decades do not meet code. Your insistence that an appliance that may never have required a flue liner (most didn’t) should now comply with present day code applies a standard to which I am sure you, yourself would hardly like to comply.

Code now requires your townhouse to have a handicap accessible hall. Stop right now and install an elevator or mechanical lift. But it’s been that way for “ever”, you will protest. So when it suits your purpose grandfathering is good, but your neighbor operated an appliance safely till you removed an essential fire stop between your properties.

You have probably cowed him into submission on this issue, but your victory is pyhric. Heaven forbid there is a fire in his house while he is not at home. Are you currently thinking that your precious bookcase will stop that 1500 degree heat from blasting through your wall and torching your bone dry wood joists. Yeah they were dumb back then but not that dumb.

I have tried tactfully to suggest that the DOB inspector hasn’t a clue, but run this by any firemen while they are pulled over at the store.

Just because officialdom has approved something does not assure that it has a lick of sense.

If you were to thank this neighbor for inadvertently alerting you to the danger that you inadvertently had caused, he might be a lot more congenial.

brucef, perhaps what you missed, or what I failed to mention, was that it is not as if my neighbor had been safely operating a gas fireplace until the prior owner did some electrical upgrading, after which it suddenly became dangerous. This issue arose a few years after I bought the house, which was the very first time my neighbor had attempted to light the gas fireplace in many, many years (according to his wife). I am pretty open minded as to whether your theory could be right, but since the gas company detected fumes at various places along our shared party wall, I am not so sure this is just a case of a single allegedly misplaced outlet box. I am not a stickler for code and don’t care what people do within the confines of their own homes, but I have to draw a line at toxic gas in my kids’ bedroom. I am very happy to be neighborly to help resolve issues where houses abut, but I do think it is unreasonable to demand your neighbor start ripping up walls to test a theory when he could first snake a camera down the chimney to check it out. If that is the case, I’d be happy to resolve it. 

I don’t know how to say this. Forget gas. Forget the neighbor.
You may have an unsafe condition due to compromised fire stop. Period.
Whose fault, or which authority told you it was alright, is beside the point.
I am trying to share experience gained in over 40 years repairing historic buildings.
I hope that you or other Brownstoners can gain insight.

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