In Troy, NY, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals has for the fourth time unanimously rejected a local tow operator’s proposal to open an auto repair and towing business on Fifth Avenue at the location of a former body shop called Ward’s Auto Body.
The Cox family had hoped to obtain approval for a nonconforming use variance in a B-2 commercial zone to open a towing business and garage for light automotive repair, such as tune-ups and brake and muffler work.
Jack Cox Jr. represented his father, Jack Cox Sr., at the hearing and said his father was informed when the property was purchased that it was grandfathered in as a B-2 Commercial Zone with a special-use permit.
The zoning board on Jan. 8 shot down the request for the fourth time since 2006, claiming the property does not comply with the commercial zoning where it is located.
This was the fifth time the Cox family had pursued an application for a special-use permit to operate an auto service and towing business out of the former Ward’s Auto Body building at 520 Fifth Ave. In one instance, the request had been withdrawn.
According to Jack Cox Sr., 70, he purchased the property for his son in 2006 from a friend who owned Ward’s. Wards Auto Body and Used Cars had operated at the site since 1967. Cox said he bought the former Ward’s property because the city had forced him out of a junk yard business and he wasn’t ready to retire. Cox. Sr. has also owned and operated Jack’s Auto Sales in Troy since 1965.
But Cox Sr. said a long-standing relationship of animosity with his city botched his plans. He feels he’s been harassed by the city over the years.
“The politicians in Troy don’t like me,” he said. “I fight for the little people because little people don’t have the money to fight people who have walked all over them and abused them. Any time I try to do something, they block me because they don’t like me.”
He said shortly after buying the property, he and his son began the process of trying to get the special use permit for automotive repair. In the meantime, he used the property to store vehicles. The city responded by setting up concrete block barricades in front of the business, claiming the owner was storing junk vehicles without the appropriate paperwork. The city eventually settled a lawsuit brought by Cox, who claimed he was illegally barricaded and his constitutional rights were violated, for $20,000.
Cox Sr. said the city barricades remained in place for nearly two years and in that time, the special use permit for towing expired. Cox contends that the city’s argument that the business was left vacant is false and that actually the business never got off the ground because the city refused to issue a special use permit for automotive repair and also barricaded the entrance for so long.
Seven years and $200,000 later, the Cox family is still working to open a business on the property that is about 1/4 acre in size. During that time, Cox Sr. said his son decided against wanting the business due to all the stress and the property is now under his name. His son, however, acted as his spokesman at the recent hearing. Cox Jr. is a former mayoral candidate and has plans of running for a spot on the City Council in District 2. He works in the roofing and painting trades.
At the Jan. 8 zoning hearing, Jack Cox Jr. said plans are to run the auto-related business within the guidelines established under the city code. He said in the past, the city administration under former Mayor Harry Tutunjian had targeted family operations there and at its former Jack’s Junkyard at Douw Street. Operations at both sites were criticized by residents, according to current and former officials.
Board Chairman Jay Vandenburgh said the previously grandfathered use of the property at 520 Fifth Ave. in Lansingburgh as an auto repair business had lapsed. Vandenburgh cited the law that said the exemption was no longer valid if the property had not been put to that use for more than a year. As a non-conforming use, the use variance and a special use permit were required for the business to open.
“That is the most viable use of the property today,” Cox Jr. said. “Right now, that piece of property supports one industry and one industry only.” Cox Sr. said the building is set up for automotive work with a 7-8 car working garage and three open bay doors.
Several members of the zoning board took issue, saying Cox should have gotten the proper paperwork in order instead of purchasing the property and coming to the city after the fact to ask for it to rectify the problem.
“At the time you purchased the property, it is incumbent on your attorney not to take word of mouth but to actually verify legally on a zoning map the property could be used as you wanted it,” said board member Jeffrey Nesich. “You don’t have that.”
Cox Jr. repeated to the board it was a lesson learned but contended there could be no other use for the property other than an automotive business. He said the main goal is to do towing for the Police Department and use the lot across the street as an impounding yard.
Councilman Kevin McGrath, D-District 1, where the auto repair shop would be located, said there have been concerns brought to him by district residents about the shop opening up on Fifth Avenue because of the cars found strewn across the property near 112th street.
“(The Zoning Board of Appeals) needs to look at what properties you have owned and how you have maintained them,” McGrath said. “But their rights should not be violated because their last name is Cox. And I know they have been.”
With the new property, Cox Jr. said they would be putting in a parking lot, a fence and hedgerow.
“We have the most refined tow trucks in the industry,” Cox Jr. said, adding the tow trucks are more environmentally sound than the business nearby, The Snowman Ice Cream, the owner of which the Cox’s publicly have had disputes with.
When it came time for public comment at the latest hearing, there was some support for the business. Six people spoke in favor of the Cox application. No one spoke against it. One in support was resident Peggy Kownack, who said she grew up in the area where Jack Cox had his junkyard, even admitting to have snuck in there and being disciplined by him.
She didn’t understand why a variance was needed to operate an auto body shop there as Ward’s operated as one for several years.
“I don’t even understand why they need a variance,” Kownack said. “It’s the same business going on the property.”
After the meeting concluded, Cox Jr. said they would file an article 78 to appeal the decision of the board. He said he didn’t expect much from the board and felt he argued his father’s case fine without a lawyer. If the appeal fails in court, he said they will be bringing their proposal back to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
“If you don’t have high expectations, it’s kind of hard to be disappointed,” Cox Jr. said, and then joked the board has been very consistent in their decisions. “Been here four times and it is always 0-5.”
Cox Jr. said to expect a new application to submitted in a year, the earliest it can happen.
“Bottom line is, my father and I, we want to move forward,” Cox said. “We want to be an asset to the City of Troy.”