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A homeowner's nightmare: Jacksonville couple struggles with neighbors' complaints

JACKSONVILLE ' Christopher Sipe and Stephanie Schopf thought they were buying their dream home when they moved from Portland to sunny Southern Oregon and purchased the Colvig House in historic Jacksonville.

Two years later, and six months into a construction shutdown, they say they've been dragged into the middle of a homeowner's nightmare.

Their nightmare revolves around a half-built, 2,160-square-foot shop/garage that Sipe and Schopf said was stamped and approved for construction by the Historical and Architectural Review Commission and former City Planner Jason Locke back in June 2000. The project was approved even though a city ordinance at the time limited garage space to 600 square feet. (It has since been changed to 1,000 square feet.)

The barn-like building is now sitting unfinished, unusable and, according to Sipe and Schopf, suffering the effects of exposure to the weather.

We have compromised and cooperated to the best of our abilities, Schopf said. We have let them pick the color of our barn and then arbitrarily change it to something else, even though we'd already purchased the paint color they had demanded.

We have gone to meeting after meeting while they postponed and delayed and even misled us. I am sick about this.

Sipe and Schopf purchased the property at 410 S. Oregon St. in March 2000 for &

36;398,000 and planned to spend another &

36;130,000 on the new building. They said a few complaints from neighbors compounded by mistakes and misinformation from city staff caused them to be placed in the middle of a war between angry neighbors and the city.

Neighbors claim the city was negligent in its public notification, building review process and construction inspections, and they say the owners made changes to plans without going before HARC. HARC is a seven-member board that reviews building and landscaping designs with the goal of preserving Jacksonville's historic character.

Neighbors Stephen Smith, Carol Knapp and David and Ronit Gibb spoke before the City Council on Oct. 15. Knapp threatened that she would appeal to the state Land Use Board of Appeals if council did not address their concerns, which included space allotted for the garage, building color, window designation, cupola design and siding direction.

City staff and council members admit there have been mistakes on all sides.

Human error was involved. A building permit was issued. Building was begun. Some of the errors were made by the architect, but I see this appeal (by neighbors) as more against the city than the owners, said Councilman Jerry Mathern.

Deviations from the permit include two window changes, a slightly larger foundation footprint than originally designed, and a setback from the street of 17 feet instead of 11 feet.

City Administrator Paul Wyntergreen said he felt the inspectors should have caught those mistakes early on, but said the inspection process can be complicated and is often complaint-driven.

There were some errors there. Setback and foundation width should have been caught by building inspectors, Wyntergreen said.

Schopf said she made a huge mistake of her own when she tried to make some external changes to the building in hopes it would appease neighbors and ended up signing off on an amendment stipulating the interior garage would be no larger than 600 square feet.

Schopf said she went to City Planner L. Scott Clay and was told she had to add the amendment in order for her proposed changes to be heard by HARC. Sipe, who handled most of the planning, had undergone hip-replacement surgery the previous day. Schopf said she was upset and distracted but determined to get the derailed building back under construction.

I wanted to make the building prettier and ended up signing away Chris' shop, she said. He (Clay) said I had to do it in order to get the barn built but it would be OK, so I stupidly did it. I trusted him.

I think the city realized they'd made a mistake and took this opportunity to fix their mistake at our expense.

Clay said he inherited the design problem from Locke and thinks his architectural background might have enabled him to catch the size issue before the plans were ever approved. He also said there was no intent to strong-arm Schopf or take advantage of Sipe's absence.

I told her she had a lot on her plate and we could postpone the meeting. She didn't want to, Clay said.

Clay admitted Schopf did not initially submit any language on her application detailing the size of the interior garage space. He said he urged Schopf to add the amendment setting the interior limitations after being told by Wyntergreen about the garage-size ordinance.

In conversations with Paul, he pointed out the code issue, Clay said. We asked her (Schopf) to clarify that it would be a 600-foot limitation.

Sipe, an antique car buff, owns a converted bus and two antique cars he wants to house and work on in the building. He said 600 square feet is not enough space to even house all three vehicles, much less work on them.

We have the signed plans, Sipe said. There are no interior wall designations on any of the plans, and the plans clearly state this is a shop/garage. I wouldn't have spent this money if I'd known I was only going to be able to use a quarter of the space.

HARC reviewed the project again in September and approved it with 16 conditions, which include interior partitions to create a 600-foot maximum garage space.

At a Oct. 22 special City Council meeting, Wyntergreen instructed the council members they had three options: to uphold, modify or rescind HARC's final review.

After stating concerns about the many failures by city planners and inspectors to catch errors along the way, the council voted unanimously to uphold HARC's final order.

In an area so close to historic downtown, said Councilman Bill Leep, there needs to be more investigation. This is sensitive zoning. We need to be responsible for that process.

This is a complaint-driven system, and while we can be grateful for watchful eyes, I agree this frustration should be directed against the city and not the home builders, Leep said.

Sipe and Schopf said they will have to wait and see whether neighbors file an appeal with LUBA. Meanwhile, they are under a mandate from HARC and the city limiting the building's interior garage space to 600 square feet. If the final order of approval holds as written, they said, they are stuck with a building that is costing them a fortune ' &

36;100,000 more than they planned ' and will not be useful if and when they ever manage to complete construction.

Sipe and Schopf were contacted by Lyle McLaughlin of Oregonians in Action, a homeowners' rights organization. McLaughlin spoke at the Oct. 15 meeting in defense of the two homeowners, as did two other neighbors who requested the city allow the building to be completed.

These folks had a signed set of plans back in 2000. They have acted in good faith every step of the way. Their property is being damaged by this delay, said McLaughlin. What is happening to them is outrageous and is a violation of homeowners' rights.

Sipe and Schopf said they are unwilling to accept the conditions imposed by HARC but are unsure how to proceed.

We sure would like to hear input from others on this issue, Sipe said. We have never been through anything like this before, and we would love to have a variety of opinions from citizens who may have been in this position before.

Sipe, Schopf timeline

March 28, 2000: Christopher Sipe and Stephanie Schopf purchase the Colvig House at 410 S. Oregon St., Jacksonville, for &

36;398,000. Soon afterward, they submit plans to build a 2,160-square-foot detached shop/garage.

May 10, 2000: Notice of public meeting regarding the proposed building is sent by Jacksonville city staff to affected neighbors. The property's address, however, is misstated as 645 Sterling St.

May 24, 2000: Plans for the shop/garage are reviewed by Jacksonville's Historical and Architectural Review Commission.

May 26, 2000: HARC issues final order of approval for Sipe and Schopf's plans.

June 16, 2000: City approves plans, which are stamped and dated by former City Planner Jason Locke.

June 27, 2000: City issues building permits.

April 1, 2001: Work begins on-site with foundation excavation and continues through framing and partial external completion.

May 3, 2002: Building is inspected by Todd Meador, a county building inspector contracted by the city who issues a stop order after finding deviations from previous plans. Meador allows an exception for drying-in to protect structure from inclement weather.

May 5: City changes its Historic Protection and Design Regulations to increase maximum allowable garage size from 600 square feet to 1,000. (Sipe and Schopf's project must adhere to the original ordinance, however.)

May 6: Homeowners submit external changes application to city.

May 21: Sipe goes to hospital for hip-replacement surgery.

May 22: Schopf submits addendum to application. Signs off on 600 square foot limit. Meets with HARC. Application review is postponed twice by HARC.

July 17: HARC holds a special meeting at the property for an on-site review.

Sept. 10: Second final order of approval sent by HARC with 16 conditions.

Sept. 17: HARC's final order is appealed by four neighbors. Matter is sent to City Council for resolution.

Oct. 15: City Council hears from opposing neighbors, supportive neighbors, homeowners and a representative from Oregonians in Action, a homeowners' rights group.

Oct. 22: In special City Council meeting, council votes to uphold HARC final review, including amendment No. 15 stipulating a 600-square-foot garage limitation. Council instructs staff to write up the final order.

Once the order is written and signed, neighbors have 21 days to appeal to the state Land Use Board of Appeals. The stop order remains in effect until after the 21 days have passed.

Stephanie Schopf and Christopher Sipe say they are caught in a battle between neighbors and the city over their 2,160-square-foot garage on South Oregon Street. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell