2016-05-06 / Front Page

Yaz Towing denied curb cut for proposed business

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Payem Yazdanpanah, owner of Yaz Towing, speaks before the South Portland City Council May 2, during a hearing at which it denied his appeal of a public works denial of a curb cut to access his property at 600 Westbrook St. (Photo courtesy SPC-TV) Payem Yazdanpanah, owner of Yaz Towing, speaks before the South Portland City Council May 2, during a hearing at which it denied his appeal of a public works denial of a curb cut to access his property at 600 Westbrook St. (Photo courtesy SPC-TV) SOUTH PORTLAND — For the second time in less than two months, the South Portland City Council has exercised its rarely used power to sit in a judicial capacity, and for the second time it has ruled against the same small business, Yaz Towing.

On March 22, the council upheld a Jan. 6 decision made by City Clerk Emily Carrington to suspend Yaz’s operating license until June 30, and to boot the company from a list of towing companies called to accidents, breakdowns and arrests by South Portland police. That suspension lasts through the balance of the licensing year, to Dec. 6.

Both suspensions were made following a hearing called at the request of Police Chief Ed Googins, at which Carrington determined Yaz owner Payem Yazdanpanah had been abusive and threatening to a customer during a December call for service. Yazdanpanah, who had agreed to tow a vehicle from Auburn to South Portland after a customer signed a promissory note for a $200 winching fee not covered by the insurance – assessed, he said, because the vehicle needed to be pulled from a ditch – was upset when two days passed without payment.

At Monday’s city council meeting, councilors again found unanimously against Yazdanpanah, this time over his request for a curb cut on Wermuth Road.

Yazdanpanah, a resident of Churchill Road in South Portland, purchased a quarter-acre lot at 600 Westbrook St., at the corner of Wermuth Road, from Private Capital LLC on Oct. 19, 2015, for $70,000. The city has the vacant lot assessed at $86,500.

Yazdanpanah’s intent was to build a 760-square-foot building on the site with a one-bay service station and apartment. However, the property has no curb cut for vehicles to enter, either from Westbrook Street or Wermuth Road. Yazdanpanah is allowed to access the site by the owner of Village Variety, located next door to the property, at 586 Westbrook St.

However, before putting up the new building, Yazdanpanah said he preferred to obtain direct street access via a new curb cut on Wermuth Road.

“I have only one choice, if I do not go though (Wermuth Road), I have to go across my neighbor’s lot, but I don’t want to do that because he could change his mind at any time,” Yazdanpanah told the city council.

On Jan. 16, Public Works Director Doug Howard denied Yazdanpanah’s application for a new curb cut. That denial, City Manager Jim Gailey said, was “automatic,” due to a city ordinance that bans curb cuts within 200 feet of an intersection.

According to Shawn Frank, a senior project manager at Sebego Technics, the engineering firm hired by Yazdanpanah to design the project and representing him before the city, the proposed new home for Yaz Towing has only 110 feet of frontage on Westbrook, and 73 feet on Wermuth Road.

“We don’t have a location on the property that’s greater than 200 feet from an intersection. Obviously, that is the hardship we are dealing with,” Frank said.

However, city councilors were dubious that a true hardship existed. Councilor Claude Morgan, citing the real estate warning caveat emptor – Latin for “let the buyer beware” – said Yazdanpanah created the hardship himself by buying the lot.

“He was a bona fide purchaser,” Morgan said. “He had the right to research what he could and couldn’t do.”

Yazdanpanah said he was aware that council approval of the curb cut would be “a complicated approval.”

According to Mayor Tom Blake, the council gets a similar request “every year or two,” and deals with them on a case-bycase basis. A curb cut variance was granted by the council for a resident earlier this year, but it also denied one two years for Southern Maine Community College.

However, Yazdanpanah said repeatedly that in meetings with South Portland’s code enforcement officer, Pat Doucette, prior to buying the lot, he was told the primary restriction he was advised of was that a tow yard would not be allowed in that area of the city as a business in its own right. Once that hurdle was cleared, the curb cut might be less of an issue.

“I got the OK that as long as I made my towing business accessory to an auto repair shop, it would be allowed,” Yazdanpanah said. “They did not say a curb cut would be 100 percent approved, but that it would be allowable.”

In an undated memo to the city council, Chief Googins noted that Wermuth Road is just 21 feet wide, with no sidewalks on either side.

“I am very concerned that this curb cut for commercial pur- poses, so close to the intersection and on a residential street entering into congested Redbank Village, will create conditions that will be very unsafe for pedestrians,” Googins wrote.

On April 28, the SoPo West End Neighborhood Association submitted a petition to the city, singed by 85 Redbank residents, asking the council to deny the curb cut.

Several residents spoke at Monday’s meeting, noting that the area has high vehicle traffic and is also heavily traveled by pedestrians, particularly children commuting to and from school. Most also objected to the idea of a “junkyard” going into their neighborhood, even though Yazdanpanah promised to enclose the tow yard behind a fence. He also said there would never be more than five cars on site, with any vehicle there more than five days towed to another lot he owns in Windham.

Still, residents said a business like the one Yazdanpanah proposed would be harmful to a neighborhood already dealing with an identify crisis.

“I counted 155 kids, two times day, going by there to school,” said Cannon Road resident Makara Meng. “If you want to change the (perception of the) neighborhood from a ghetto, don’t put something like that there.”

“The idea is that renters don’t really care, but that’s not true at all,” said Rollins Way resident Max Saluneu. “This is not really going to fit in where we are trying to generate more of a neighborhood and community-based feel of things, to have a junkyard and car sounds at 2 a.m. in the morning.”

Others said the size of the lot was not suited for Yazdanpanah’s proposal. A small corner park, some suggested, would better serve the community.

“I just really think we could use that space better,” said Wainwright Circle resident Jill Rodriguez. “That business could go in a better spot where he would have more room and not have concerns with parents and children and school buses. I think it’s just a very inappropriate place for that type of business in that small of an area.”

Meanwhile, Emilio Rodriguez, also of Wainwright Circle, claimed the lot in question is only about the same size as the council chamber in city hall.

“Just imagine turning this room into a towing lot. It’s rather ludicrous,” he said.

Mayor Blake cautioned the council that they were only to rule on the curb cut, not on the proposed use of the property.

On that front, however, the council found much to fault, given a Maine Department of Transportation study from 2010 that showed nearly 5,900 cars pass by the property each day on Westbrook Street, while 630 go by on Wermuth Road. The curb cut on Wermuth Road at the extreme edge of the Yaz Towing lot would be 65 feet from the intersection.

Frank said a maximum of 40 trips per day might be added to the intersection by Yaz Towing, which he deemed “a one-man operation,” and any apartment tenant.

“Because of the low level of traffic that would be using that site, we really didn’t have a concern for safety, either in terms of vehicle-to-vehicle traffic or vehicle-to-pedestrian,” he said. “And there’s good visibility back and forth. You can see everything.”

Still, councilors were not convinced.

“I just cannot see that that is safe, not by any stretch of the imagination, not with all of the traffic out there, vehicular and pedestrian,” said Councilor Linda Cohen.

“I live near that site and it’s quite busy,” agreed Councilor Brad Fox. “Dozens of high school and elementary school children walk all around that intersection and stand there and wait for school buses.”

“This is the densest area of our city, in terms of human population, within our city limits,” Councilor Patti Smith added.

“To me this is clearly a safety issue,” Blake said. “We have the 200-foot limit in there for a reason. If this was a 5-, 10- or even 15-foot variance, that would be different. But this isn’t even close.”

And, although Blake said Yazdanpanah “might have other options to pursue,” the wrecker driver left the meeting looking a little dumbfounded.

“It’s a surprise to me that I cannot enter my property,” he said.

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