City admits error but says homeowner must pay

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Albuquerque homeowner Johnny Robinson claims the City of Albuquerque ruined his life, and he is not being shy about it.

Outside his Northeast Albuquerque home near San Pedro Drive and Topke Place, Robinson placed a large sign claiming so, but it’s not just the sign that catches the attention of passerby’s. It’s the two-story, 5,400 square foot unfinished mammoth of a house that neighbors gawk at.

“The poor man, he’s like living in a third world country,” neighbor Manuel Gonzales said.

Robinson, a contractor, started renovating his house after the city planning department approved his building blueprints in October 2008. His plan was to add a second story and a third garage to the existing 1,600 square foot home he lives in with his teenage son.

“I know what I’m doing in terms of building it, but with all the paperwork and stuff, I relied on the city to make sure everything I was doing was right,” Robinson said. “I made sure, I was down there all the time, asking questions.”

Robinson said a city official told him that he needed to request a variance with approval from neighbors if renovations came close to the property line the two homes share. Robinson said he received a signed and notarized document from his neighbor, granting permission to build near the property line. Documents Robinson provided KRQE News 13 show the city planning department granted another building permit in April 2011.

Construction was well underway, when in October 2011, after Robinson poured more than $200,000 into renovations, city officials told him he was breaking city code.

“Right before I put the shingles on, they came and red-tagged me and told me to stop work,” Robinson said.

City Attorney David Tourek said Robinson’s house is too close to the property line. Tourek said city code states homeowners must be within 15 feet of the property line, but Robinson is within 3 feet. Tourek said even though the city initially approved the plans, it was done in error and it is Robinson’s responsibility to make it right.

“There always needs to be compliance, and in this situation, the setbacks are so close to the property lines, they need to come into compliance,” Tourek said.

For Robinson, coming into compliance would mean tearing down most of what he’s built, something he said he’s not willing to do. In 2012, Robinson took his case to a city zoning hearing officer, who said Robinson had “a viable argument in his reliance on the City of Albuquerque when they issued a building permit.” However, the hearing officer denied Robinson’s request to continue building, saying “this office does not have equitable powers and may not compound the error of the approval of a building permit.”

“I don’t see how the city can allow me to live like this. They made the mistake. I didn’t make the mistake,” Robinson said.

Tourek said the error in granting the building permit was made by a “low level clerk.” A spokeswoman for the planning department said the clerk was given a verbal reprimand and additional training.

Tourek said the financial burden of coming into compliance would fall on Robinson, even though it was initially a city mistake. He said it’s about following the law.

Robinson filed a lawsuit in July 2012, asking a district court judge to decide whether the city should be held financially liable for the mistake. The process has dragged on. But Robinson is not giving up, saying he’s willing to take his case to the highest court to prove his point.

According to Robinson’s attorney, a trial date has been set for July 17.

It has been more than two and a half years since Robinson stopped working on his home. Today, there is a gaping hole in his roof and no insulation, keeping temperatures extremely cold. Robinson has racked up astronomical heating bills and water damage is everywhere.

“I’m living in one room in my house, and that’s like being in jail,” Robinson said.

Robinson is only allowed to make minor repairs to the house, such as fixing a roof leak. While the lawsuit is pending, he is not allowed to make any significant changes. The city could seek misdemeanor charges against him if he does, officials said.

Robinson said he believes it’s unfair the city is forcing him to pay up when other neighbors are also in violation of city code. On Jan. 22, the city “yellow-tagged” Robinson’s next door neighbor for not pulling a building permit when renovating a patio into a sunroom. Robinson claims the city is not forcing that homeowner, who has since moved out of the property, to tear down the addition.

But Tourek said the city is taking action against that homeowner, as well.

“We are in contact with the homeowner, and we are trying to get them into compliance too,” Tourek said.

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