Eileen Aiken says she has to air out her clothes because cigarette smoke from a neighboring condo permeates her closet.
During the peak of the real estate bubble in 2005, Hunter Craig, Biscuit Run impresario, turned the Hessian Hills apartments into condos, some of which sold for as much as $200K. Many now are assessed for around $114,000.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE
When Eileen Aiken bought a condominium at the Hessian Hills complex in 2005, it was the first time she'd ever owned her own home. Five years later, house pride has turned into a living hell, and she blames it on seeping cigarette smoke.
Aiken, 59, shows a reporter to the closed door of her bathroom. When it's opened, the room smells like a delinquent teen has been sneaking puffs inside. The thing is, Aiken doesn't smoke.
She continues to her bedroom closet, from which wafts a bouquet of tobacco and the Febreze she vainly sprays to mask it. By contrast, her bedroom smells relatively fresh, but she says that's because she sleeps with the windows open at night– and her utility bill is up 70 percent as a result.
"I just want the right to breathe clean air in my own house," declares Aiken.
Aiken's condo is on the second floor of what was an apartment complex built circa 1967. Long popular with students and located at the corner of Barracks and Georgetown Roads, Hessian Hills was converted six years ago during the housing boom.
A company controlled by Charlottesville investor Hunter Craig– recently controversial for convincing the state to buy a flopped housing project called Biscuit Run– scooped up the 184-unit complex, and after performing renovations that Aiken now finds insufficient, began selling them off as condominiums.
Aiken says the smoke problem didn't arise until February 2008 when a woman bought the condo downstairs and moved in with a sister.
Aiken says she told the siblings she could smell cigarette smoke shortly after they first arrived.
"A month after they moved in, I went to the [condo] board," says Aiken. Neither action resulted in relief, according to Aiken.
The downstairs neighbor, Cathy C. Ward, declined to comment, and members of the Hessian Hills property owners association did not respond to phone calls and emails from a reporter.
Hessian Hills is managed by a firm called Real Property, and the property manager, Jan Beasley, did not return repeated phone calls from the Hook.
Aiken points to one of the condo's bylaws: "No unit owner shall make or permit noises in any building or do or permit anything which will interfere with the rights, comforts, or convenience of other unit owners."
"They are interfering with my lifestyle and comfort," says Aiken, who has discovered few options for clearing the air.
"We don't have any role in that," says Albemarle County Attorney Larry Davis, who suggests Aiken take the matter to the condo board–- or to an attorney.
Aiken says she lives on disability payments and can't afford to hire a lawyer. And she's worried that her neighbors' smoke will make it difficult to sell her condo.
"I've shown lots of homes where my buyer clients had an immediate negative reaction to the smell of cigarette smoke," says Jim McVay with Roy Wheeler Realty. "They usually immediately assume the worst and verbalize that the whole house will need to be repainted and all carpets replaced."
McVay also says he strongly urges smoking clients to do it outside while the home is for sale just so it doesn't become an issue.
"This is a health issue," says Aiken. "It's not that they don't know; they just don't care."
Residents feeling tarred and nicotined by smoking neighbors are not unusual.
"It's definitely a problem we've seen, and we get a lot of complaints," says American Lung Association spokesperson Kimberly Williams, who points out that in December a Surgeon General report concluded that even the smallest amount of second-hand smoke exposure is harmful.
A study in the journal Pediatrics finds higher levels of tobacco smoke in the blood of children in multi-unit complexes, "even when there's not smoking in their homes," says Williams. And an anti-tobacco video from California shows how smoke can seep through apartment complexes.
Hessian Hills was built as an apartment complex, rather than as condominiums, and that could be part of the problem.
"The Hessian Hills project is significant because there was minimal modification done to the garden-style apartments when they were converted to condominiums," says Charlottesville real estate attorney Cheri Lewis, who has represented the complex's homeowners association.
Smoke seepage is not unusual in such dwellings. "This situation is exacerbated by the fact it's an older building," says Lewis, who sees two legal theories under which Aiken could wage a lawsuit.
One is the concept of private nuisance. "A private nuisance," says Lewis, "creates a condition that affects the ability of the adjoining owner to enjoy her property."
Trespassing is another theory. "If you could smell the smoke, it's entering without permission," says Lewis.
Virginia, a state where tobacco was once king, ended smoking in bars and restaurants in 2009. For the beleaguered smoker, home might seem like the last refuge for lighting up. Shouldn't an owner be allowed to smoke in her own property?
"Absolutely," responds Audrey Silk with New York City CLASH–- Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment. "The anti-smokers coming for our homes is the final frontier, the last place they should be allowed to infringe upon."
Silk calls concern about harm from cigarette smoke "an absolute lie" coming from "manufactured science to fit their agenda."
With smoke coming into a nonsmoker's condo, says Silk, "The issue isn't really the smokers. [The condo] should be sealed."
Jim Lark is on the Libertarian Party national committee, and while noting he's not an official party spokesman, this Charlottesville-based freedom-lover says there are limits to freedom.
"Libertarians believe you should not let the byproducts of your activities onto my property," says Lark. "When it does, that's a trespass."
Lark compares the situation to a smoke-belching factory. "That's a trespass once it comes onto your property," he says.
One thing Lark doesn't want to see is government intervention. "If the association allows smoking, the city or state shouldn't come in and say you can't allow it," he says.
And although this libertarian would like to think reasonable people can work out the situation, the dispute in Hessian Hills appears to have escalated beyond that.
Aiken admits that after five years of breathing second-hand smoke, she recently started stomping on the floor and yelling at her neighbors to go outside when they lit up.
They called police, got a warrant, and Aiken found herself charged with a noise violation, a class 1 misdemeanor that carries up to a $2,500 fine and up to 12 months in prison, she goes to court February 16, the day after this issue went to press.
Now Aiken says she feels like a victim with no recourse.
"It's true you have the right to do what you want in your home," she says, "but what about me?"
Correction 2/22/11: The originial version erroneously said that ductwork was shared in the Hessian Hills condominiums.