In a lawsuit filed in December, the owner of a former boarding house on West Chestnut Street claims that Mayor Shayne Gallo vowed to oppose any plan to house disabled people at the residence. But Gallo, who denies making the statement, said his objection to reopening the boarding house, formerly known as Chiz’s Heart Street, is rooted in the city’s zoning code — and owner Joe Sangi’s checkered past.
“I’m not interested in supporting anything Joe Sangi wants to do,” said Gallo. “He’s not interested in benefiting the community, he’s in it for his own gain.”
The dispute centers on the big house at 106 West Chestnut Street. It’s in a quiet residential neighborhood has hosted a series of nursing and boarding homes since at least the 1950s. In 2006, Tri-Serendipity LLC bought it for $500,000. The address was leased to Mary “Chiz” Chisholm who operated “Chiz’s Heart Street” there. Heart Street accommodated up to 39 people, most of whom got disability benefits for mental health and other chronic issues. While the neighborhood is zoned for single-family homes, 106 West Chestnut operated as a multi-family residence prior to the city enacting zoning codes in 1966 and thus could stay open as a “pre-existing non-conforming use.”
Chisholm closed the facility in March 2014 to take over the Washington Manor/Queens Galley site Uptown. At the time, neighbors said, they hoped the house would revert to its original use as a single-family home. Bethany Hamilton lives at 102 West Chestnut; she said the tree-lined street with many homes dating back to the 1800s draws interest from young home buyers attracted to West Chestnut’s quiet atmosphere and historic character.
“[When Heart Street closed] we all kind of rallied and started to think about what we wanted to see happen there,” said Hamilton. “We’re a neighborhood of one-family historic homes and we really wanted to maintain that character.”
The idea of returning 106 West Chestnut to a single-family home won support from both Alderwoman Deborah Brown (R-Ward 9), her predecessor and former mayoral candidate Hayes Clement and other residents. Planning officials told neighbors that if the house remained vacant for a year, it would lose its status as a pre-existing non-conforming use and could only be used as a single-family residence.
Thus, Hamilton said, she was disappointed when she learned that Sangi had purchased the residence in October and was carrying out renovations in anticipation of operating another boarding house there. In his lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court, Sangi said his interest in the property kicked off a campaign of non-cooperation and outright harassment by city officials.
“I have never run into anything so unjustifiable,” said Sangi. “People abusing their power just because they can.”
‘That’s not going to fly’
Sangi said his first hint of trouble even before he purchased the property. Sangi, who has previously operated boarding houses in Kingston, Florida and New Hampshire, said he attempted to contact city Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben to inquire about permits he would need to renovate and operate the boarding house. When Zweben’s secretary told him not to expect a response, Sangi said in a sworn affidavit that he went to City Hall to speak directly with Gallo. In the affidavit, Sangi said that Gallo asked him what he planned to do with the property. When he replied he planned to create a “top-quality boarding house” Sangi said in his sworn statement that Gallo told him, “That’s not going to fly.”
“When I asked him why, he indicated that if I was going to have disabled people there he would vehemently oppose me and I would not receive his support,” the affidavit reads. (Sangi has filed an Article 78 proceeding claiming the city is unlawfully denying him a building permit.)
Sangi further affirmed under oath that when he reminded Gallo that the property had operated as a boarding home for 70 years and was clearly a pre-existing non-conforming use, Gallo replied, “That’s the problem.” Gallo went on to cite opposition by Brown, Clement and Zweben — who also lives on West Chestnut — and advised him not to buy the property.
Ignoring Gallo’s advice, Sangi stated, he bought it anyway and commenced renovations. A short time later, Sangi affirmed, he received an unannounced visit by five city officials including Deputy Chief David Allen of the Kingston Fire Department’s Building and Safety Division and other KFD personnel. When he asked why they were there, Sangi said in his affidavit that the inspectors said that they had received a call to “drop everything” and go to the house. When Allen asked to do a walk-through inspection, Sangi stated he declined.
“Five guys show up unannounced and they don’t even know why they were sent?” said Sangi. “I know what harassment looks like.”