Where there's smoke, there's ire: Condo conflict lights up in Hessian Hills

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.


Smokers know that they have a habit that is offensive to many people. I understand the right to smoke in one's home, but anyone with an ounce of decency would recognize that continuing to smoke under the circumstances described in the article is just rude.

This should be the responsibility of Real Properties. Ms. Aiken nor her neighbors rights should be compromised. Not sure if unit could be sealed against the smoke intrusion. Maybe a relocation or buyout is in line.

The courts exist for a reason. Sue the homeowner's association, sell, or learn to live with it. Stomping and yelling is not a reasonable response - even if understandable.

Couple of points:

1) Did she have a home inspection? The inspector should have pointed out the ventilation issue, and the fact that the "home" she was buying was simply a re-branded apartment.
2) She absolutely has the right to enjoy her property. But, so do her neighbors downstairs. If the folks downstairs cooked ethnic food that made her nauseous, could she force them to stop cooking?
3) She made a poor purchase decision, plain and simple. Now, she wants other people to sacrifice on her behalf.
4) This is CLEARLY under the condo associations jurisdiction. As the former President of a local HOA, our bylaws and covenants had the same "comfort and convenience" clause as her bylaws. This is exactly the type of situation that clause is designed to provide for. However, in this case, what is the right answer? People have a right to smoke in their homes. Period. The fact is that the building is poorly designed as an apartment let alone a condo if everyone is sharing ventilation. My opinion, of course.

I live in Hessian Hills and wonder about the safety issues associated with cigarette smoking indoors (besides the unhealthy and annoying second hand smoke.) The electrial system has some issues, and it's a scary prospect if one unit caught on fire as we're all conncected. I think smoking should not be allowed in the units for this reason. There is lots of common property for smoking outdoors.

For this to have been allowed to go on by Real Property Inc. is ludicrous It is up to the homeowner association and Real Property to rectify this unhealthy living situation. When one has no control over the air-vents as they are connected between units/floors, smoking just cannot be allowed. How ignorant can a person be to continue to smoke when they are more than aware of the fact that their toxic/poisonous cigarette smoke is permeating another person's home?! Just do the right thing and go outside to smoke!

i too live in hessian hills and have been in ms. aiken's building...i was taken back by the potent smell of cigarette smoke immediately as i opened the door...i can only imagine how bad it must be for her in her own home...i sincerely hope and pray that this matter can be resolved soon...so that everyone involved can live in peace...life is so short...i remember the saying my parents always told me, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you..." please turn this around!

Why are they having common ventilation ducts?

Start smoking and it won't bother you anymore. Worked for me.

This is just one of the MANY problems with shared walls, especially in older units. As another person stated, the biggest concerns is fire. When I was living in an apt. with my son, he made a great point saying, "Daddy, even if we are keeping ourselves safe against fire hazards, how do we know that our neighbors are too?"

I agree with Mike and others, this is something that needs to be addressed with Real Property and the Association. I know she has a right to be comfortable in her home, but so do others. The point about the ethnic food is dead on, although not hazardous, it could be some other odor that the neighbor doesn't like. And least we forget, the neighbors downstairs bought their condo too, they have rights too, to say that they are rude or inconsiderate has to be coming from someone who only cares about their own rights. I think the condo owner has a case against the association, etc. but not the neighbors.

Is there an update? What happened at court?

@ AJ The problem is that it's a modified apartment building, NOT a true condominium. That is why they have common ventilation ducts. The property owners made them condos on the cheap.

And while I agree that a person has the right to do just about anything (outside of criminal activity) in their own home, it's an issue that the condo board should have taken a bit more seriously than it seems they have.

To those who keep saying she should have taken it to court, I guess you missed where it stated that Ms. Aiken is living on disability, and probably doesn't have much extra money with which to hire a lawyer (and very few lawyers will take a case out of the goodness of their heart).

I also think it's selfish of her downstairs neighbors to continue to puff like chimneys, knowing that Ms. Aiken has an issue with it (although I would wager that IS the reason why they do so, since they know there is very little that Ms. Aiken can do, and the HOA and property owners will do nothing unless Ms. Aiken can get legal representation).

It is the responsibility of real estate agent to make sure that client get the best deal without getting involved in any legal or any such kind of dispute .
So, agent must make sure that all the necessary steps have be followed , so that he give best deal to the client in all possible manner.
real estate attorney

Excellent discussion by all. Just to set the record straight, Hessian Hills does NOT have "shared ventilation" nor "shared ductwork." I have had this verified by a licensed HVAC service provider, and have been in touch with Lisa Provence at The Hook, who ultimately agreed and is planning to print a correction in the next issue of The Hook.

Obviously, there is a legitimate problem with smoking, and as an investor owner of a couple of units at Hessian Hills, as well as someone who does quite a bit of business representing buyers and sellers in Hessian Hills (see www.HessianHillsCondos.com), I would support the HOA and/or Real Property looking into a solution that could work for all. Perhaps, much as the bylaws restrict which buildings can be investor units versus which must be owner occupied, maybe there could be designated smoking and non-smoking buildings? I'm not a smoker, but I'm trying to keep in mind the fact that a homeowner should be able to smoke in his/her own home if he chooses. That said, clearly the buildings have shared walls and floors, and odors and smoke can travel. The only way this wouldn't happen would be in "concrete construction" like the Tower building at 1800 JPA. But this stick-built situation is going to allow for "shared air" and this is true not only at Hessian Hills, but almost every other condo development in the Charlottesville area. I hope it gets worked out, I would like to see a happy ending to this story in what is otherwise an excellent community where 1st-time homebuyers can find affordable units wiith excellent financing options in today's market.

smokeless ash trays are the answer. Have the upstairs neighbor give the downstairs neighbor a few of these; problem solved. no lawyers required.

There is no such thing as a smokeless ash tray. They are just a gimic to get you to spend money on a product that does nothing but make the smoker think they are doing something about their addiction. A laywer should step up to the plate and help this woman. Why didn't Ms. Ward grant an interview to the Hook? Because she knows what she is doing is wrong!

Why did this even become an issue suddenly? It wasn’t a problem for many, many decades. Why are people suddenly hyper-reacting to tobacco smoke in particular? It has to do with the inflammatory propaganda of antismoking fanatics. It is a constant play on fear – one whiff is “dangerous”. No-one seems to ask the obvious question: Are the complainers suffering psychogenic effects such as anxiety reactions or somatization due to the terrorizing propaganda? Those having anxiety reactions (psychologically produced) can have heart palpitations, chest tightness, nausea, headache, eye/nose/throat irritation, etc. This problem has been created by antismoking fanatics. We seem to have lost much psychological insight.

Americans seem to be unaware that antismoking is not new to the US. There was a serious crusade in the early 1900s where the sale of tobacco was banned in quite a number of states, and some form of antismoking legislation was enacted in most others. Antismoking is not new. It has a long, sordid – even murderous – history.

Antismoking typically operates in the same way. It spreads rumors and inflammatory claims that are a constant play on fear and hatred. This is intended to outrage particularly nonsmokers so that they will not question antismoking conduct and legislation. The only interest that antismokers have in nonsmokers is if the latter can be manipulated into antismoker bigotry.

Antismoking in early-1900s USA

Unfortunately, Dillow does not mention eugenics at all (poor research). Early-1900s public health in the USA was dominated by eugenics. Eugenics was erroneously viewed as “scientific and scholarly” and had very considerable influence over the legislature (as it does now). It was eugenics, which is also anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol as part of its “body purity”, that “legitimized” the temperance movement. Sterilization laws were usually instituted before anti-tobacco (and then anti-alcohol) laws, which indicates that eugenicists were guiding the legislature regarding sterilization, antismoking, and anti-alcohol.

Antismoking popped up again in Nazi Germany, again as a point of eugenics. Hitler was a student of American eugenics.

The current antismoking crusade was set in motion by a small group operating under the auspices of the World Health Organization in the late-1960s. The denormalization/stigmatization of smoking/smokers and indoor and outdoor smoking bans was planned in the mid-1970s (see the Godber Blueprint www.rampant-antismoking.com ), years before even the first study on secondhand smoke. It continues the eugenics antismoking tradition of early-1900s USA and Nazi Germany. Much of the “evidence” since the 1970s has been tailored to fit the agenda. Many medically-aligned groups (e.g., Office of the Surgeon General) were already committed to a “smokefree world” by the 1970s. It is the medically-aligned that are venturing – again – into social engineering just as they catastrophically did in American eugenics (early 1900s) and Nazi eugenics (which was an extension of American eugenics). Eugenics, with an unhealthy definition of “health” is a demonstrably dangerous, fascist framework where medicos and their hangers-on attempt to rule society.

The antismoking mentality has no compromise or accommodation in it. It is fanatical and extremist. It is typically exterminatory: Only complete eradication of tobacco-use will satisfy this delusional mentality. Antismoking crusades typically run on inflammatory propaganda (fear and hate-mongering) masqueraded as “scientific” intended to outrage particularly nonsmokers so that they will not question deranged antismoking conduct. The only interest antismokers have in nonsmokers is if the latter can be manipulated into antismoker bigotry.

If you think that antismoking has anything to do with protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke “danger”, then you need to think again. In places around the world, those that smoke are being denied employment, medical treatment, and housing. Smoking bans are even being instituted for large open areas such as beaches and parks. It is persecution: Inflammatory propaganda has produced a bigotry bandwagon effect. Secondhand smoke “danger” has been used as a delusional means to a delusional end.

I am a married father of twin 17 year-old boys. We are all non-smokers. I work for Big Tobacco. All my life I have found that there are always technology solutions for about all situations. In this situation I think the occupants of the upstairs have rights & the occupants of the downstairs have rights. I renovate old historic homes & understand things like "Balloon Construction" and older building methods. What this situation needs is "injection Foam" and lots of it. You can simply and cheaply (relative to other reconstruction) seal the upper AND lower apartments as tight as an Igloo Cooler. Properly pitched, I bet a foam contractor would step-up for free to win business throughout the rest of the complex.

Just my thoughts, I could be wrong.

The damage to Ms Aiken has already been done. Her body has now been severely exposed to this highly dangerous toxic smoke and the stress that she has endured has further put her health in danger. She has not been listened to and she has the right to sue her neighbors or anyone else involved in ignoring her. It has to become a law to ban smoking 100% in multi-unit housing. If she should develop cancer, heart disease, emphysema, etc., etc., are these people going to come around and help her - no, they have themselves to think about. Help this lady.

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Obviously Magnetic is a smoker...talk about irrational fear...just Google cigarette ingredients. Enough said!

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The Chapman Trick is to associate trace levels of particular chemicals in tobacco smoke with industrial-type uses of the same chemicals that involve extraordinarily larger quantities of these chemicals. The only purpose of this trick is to deceive. It is intended to promote outrage or revulsion in, particularly, gullible nonsmokers at whom it’s directed. This trick has been used, ad nauseum, since the mid-1980’s because it is highly effective. It is highly effective because, like most antismoking propaganda, it is inflammatory and false: It outrages BECAUSE it is misleading. Its ONLY PURPOSE is to mislead, i.e., inflammatory propaganda.

Just to be sure, the air we typically breathe has many of the same chemicals as in tobacco smoke, and more, and in higher concentrations.

Again, these chemicals are typically at trace levels and are not problematic.
If you do a google search, you’ll find similar chemicals in raw food and from cooking, and in drinking water.


Moderator, not sure why you deleted posts. Iiwii used a derogatory reference to smokers – “Magnetic must be a smoker” – as if this, if it was true, somehow “taints” the facts provided. Notwithstanding, I will re-post the important information sans the embellishments. Thank you.

Iiwii, having googled cigarette ingredients, what I would get is some variant of the “Chapman Trick”, e.g.,
Acetone (nail varnish remover), Ammonia (cleaning agent), Arsenic (ant poison in the USA), Benzene (petrol fumes), Cadmium (car battery fluid), DDT (insecticide), Ethanol (anti-freeze), Formaldehyde (embalming fluid), Hydrogen Cyanide (industrial pollutant), Lead (batteries, petrol fumes), Methanol (rocket fuel), Tar (road surface tar).

Iiwii, you probably have no idea where this trick originated. Well, let me enlighten you. It was suggested by Simon Chapman (an antismoker) at the Fifth World Conference on Smoking & Health (1983) while presenting his “manual of tactics”.

“A glance through any copy of the Smoking and Health Bulletin of the U S Department of Health and Human Services shows an entire indexed, section on ‘Tobacco Product Additives’ . Citations are included from patent office registrations of new chemical applications to tobacco processing and from the specialist chemical literature. Both these sources are virtually unintelligible, let alone normally accessible to the average person but are rich in potential for anyone willing to translate them into news items with popular interest . Polysyllabic chemical names should be checked through a reference book that lists common usages and toxicological data for chemicals . Look for usages that will connote revulsion or concern . For example, well known chemicals found in tobacco include cadmium (as in car batteries), ammonia (as in toilet cleaners), cyanides, formaldehyde and so on ……” (p.15)


Saphire, what “damage” to Ms Aiken are you talking about? Why are you propagating this view? There is no indication of physical damage. However, there is indication of psychological distress. And this can be put down to incessant, inflammatory antismoking propaganda.

In the immortal words of Mr. Ron White, "You can't fix stupid!" This is clearly another instance where the original builder is in search of another alias and those wonderful building inspectors (along with the idiots that empower them..) should be lynched!

I am a tenant at another complex managed by Real Property. While I can't speak to the smoke issue in particular, it does not surprise me that RPI has done nothing to rectify the situation. In the year I've been renting from this company, I've only successfully reached my property manager on the phone a single time, and she hung up on me part-way through my complaint. It's unbelievable that they manage to stay in business the way they treat their tenants.