Cecil Gibson's downtown property looks today just as it has looked for as long as he can remember. But suddenly, in the last three months, he's gotten five city code violation notices.
To at least two neighbors, that's evidence that the city is engaged in a "concerted campaign" to push Gibson off his property to provide more land for intensive development.
While city officials strenuously deny the allegations, one of those neighbors points out that to wage war on Gibson's backyard mess, the city has stepped on private property.
Gibson's land, near the corner of Ridge Street and Cherry Avenue, has been in his family since the 1920s, he says. Since March, he's had two cars towed from his backyard and has been cited for a partially demolished shed behind his house.
Most bothersome to Gibson, whose address is 5th Street SW, is that the cars and shed are not visible from 5th Street. In the past, the city has confined its enforcement actions to alleged nuisances receiving complaints or spotted by city inspectors.
"If it were on the street, I could understand towing the cars," says Gibson. "I feel strongly they singled me out."
Not so, says city code official Jerry Tomlin. He says he assigned a sweep of the neighborhood– which many call Fifeville– and told inspectors to write up vehicle violations, trash, weeds, and graffiti.
"There are many others who have gotten as many as Cecil," says Tomlin, listing six violations on 5th Street, two on 6th, three on 6-1/2 Street, and two on 7-1/2 Street.
"We're basically trying to clean up the neighborhood," says Tomlin– and Fifeville isn't the only area on his list. Inspectors recently have been to Prospect, Rose Hill, Angus Road, and Woolen Mills, among other city neighborhoods.
In May, the target is north downtown, between Harris Street and Locust Avenue. "The goal is to do the whole city," says Tomlin, "and then we'll start over."
Such enforcement zeal shocks Gibson's neighbor, Antoinette Roades, who believes the city enforcement effort constitutes trespassing on private property.
In defending the enforcement, Tomlin says the partially demolished shed behind Gibson's house is visible from Cherry Avenue and a nearby alleyway.
Yet that alley is private property, owned by Gibson's cousin, Arlene Sweeney, Roades writes in a May 4 email to City Manager Gary O'Connell. To look for code violations and tow cars from Gibson's property, she says, "a would-be entrant must cross Arlene Sweeney's private property. There is no other way in."
Tomlin is no stranger to such complaints. Last October, in a Charlottesville courtroom, he defended his presence on the property of Shirley Presley, the Bland Circle citizen whose razor wire famously required a detour in the Rivanna Trail.
"We are authorized to go on people's property," says Tomlin. "We always use that alleyway. It's a known fact there's a constant problem with littering and loitering, and we check it periodically."
On April 28, Gibson is showing a visitor the overgrown lot behind his cousin's historic cottage where he'd recently spotted a city inspector taking pictures. "A lot of winos come up here and drink," Gibson says, noticing some strangers.
"What are y'all doing back here?" he asks the three men up in the woods. "This is private property."
The three trespassers apologize and leave the litter-strewn area.
Antoinette Roades is outraged that city officials can enter private property to "prospect" for violations, and in emails to O'Connell she decries what she calls "a concerted campaign" against Gibson's property rights.
Her suspected reason? A company called Southern Development, which already owns two steeply sloping acres behind Gibson, sought last year to put up to 60 housing units on the property. Roades believes the city is trying to help the company acquire Gibson's land for access.
"That's absolutely unfounded," says Frank Ballif, owner of Southern Development. "We have not asked the city to condemn anything. There is no conspiracy."
Ballif's company developed the recently opened Burnet Commons complex across from the Frank Ix complex. He estimates his company had seven or eight meetings with Fifevillians last year before pulling back plans for the Fifeville development. "The city is very upfront and open" and instructs developers to work with neighbors," he says.
Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert says Southern Development has not submitted any plans for the parcel. "There's been no request for us to condemn any property," he says.
Ballif says he was interested in buying two city-owned plots beside his existing parcel. "We submitted a request to buy it, and that was withdrawn," he says. Such sales of public property require public hearings and City Council approval, he notes. "The city sells land all the time."
And Ballif claims he, too, has been a victim of city code inspectors. "I've gotten a citation on that property for vines crossing the sidewalk," he says.
He also denies another Roades allegation: that major property owner Dr. Charles Hurt is involved with Southern Development. "I've bought a lot of property from him," says Ballif. "He has no ownership in this company."
While earning a civil engineering degree, Ballif interned for Hurt and says they've done projects together. "He sells a lot of land to a lot of different people," he says.
Cecil Gibson says both he and his cousins have gotten offers to sell, in his case, $150,000 for his property that's assessed at $67,700. "I'm 58 years old," says Gibson. "Where am I going to find a place to go under $300,000 or $350,000?"
"I do feel Mr. Gibson has been targeted," says a longtime Fifeville resident who requests that her name not be used. "I go on 5th and Cherry a lot. I had never seen anything on Mr. Gibson's property."
This resident also got a violation notice in the same March sweep.
At the last Fifeville Neighborhood Association meeting, she says, neighbors were concerned about Gibson's plight and there was talk of helping him clean up the property.
Gibson, who works at the Barracks Road ABC store, admits the rear portion of his private half-acre lot is a mess. "I'm embarrassed about this," he says. "I'm trying to do the best I can."
He is looking at spending the summer clearing up the demolished shed. "When you're on limited resources, you do what you can," he says.
Code official Tomlin says there's no pressure on Gibson. "We do the same with anyone if they continue to work on it."
Cecil Gibson doesn't understand getting citations for problems that aren't visible from the street in front of his house.
PHOTO BY LAUREN BROOKS
Debris from a demolished shed Cecil Gibson's father used when that area on 5th Street SW was called "Gibsonville."
PHOTO BY LAUREN BROOKS