There’s a wheelchair-using gearhead that built an amazing garage, with lifts and everything, so he and his friends can work on cars. Three of his neighbors are suing him to make him stop and tear down the garage, and they’ve even suggested that Jesus will kill him with his breath. It’s maddening, but I’ll try and explain.
Actually, even better than explaining, I can show, thanks to this great little video about the situation from the Cape Gazette:
According to the court records, back in 2007, Charles Williams parceled off his five acres of property and sold land to his neighbor, Margaret Foulke and her partner, George Defrehn. He used the money from the sale to improve his house, and also built a 1,920 square-foot building that became his four-car garage, complete with lifts for working on cars.
Williams, who lost both of his legs in a freak construction accident in 1993, built the garage because he loves working on cars, and has many friends who love working on cars as well. The garage is the center of his social life, and he invites friends to use his facilities to work on their cars, too. While he has been accused of operating a repair business, Williams maintains he has never charged anyone for any work in the garage.
The Gazette also reports that Williams received permits for everything he built, and according to Lawrence Lank, Sussex County director of planning and zoning, a pole building is permitted to be used as a garage.
“It can be used as a garage for your own personal enjoyment. It can also be used for a shed, storage building or whatever.”
Williams doesn’t live in a dense city or a highly-planned suburb. He lives in Harbeson, Delaware, an unincorporated community in Sussex County. The garage is extremely tidy and well-kept, to the point of making me feel like a disgusting lout when I look around at my own workshop and driveway.
Williams is being sued by his neighbor, Foulke, as well as his neighbors 800 feet down the street, John and Carol Kane (sadly, not the awesome Carol Kane), and Foulke’s nephew, Robert Walker, Jr., who used to live on a house nearby. The three filed a lawsuit in 2014 to stop Williams from working on his cars, citing noise, odors, and traffic. The suit also attempted to have the garage torn down, suggesting it was built illegally.
Court records also show that Foulke
…began to surveille [sic] Williams’ property by video, setting up an automatic camera trained on Williams’ house day and night, to take photos of cars entering and exiting Williams’ Shop. She also installed a “pinger” in her home to alert her whenever there was a vehicle on Summer Place.
A statement from a judge from June 23, 2016, mostly sided with Williams:
“Mr. Williams has a not-uncommon hobby – working on cars – that he pursues with an uncommon vigor, in a large shop beside his house. The plaintiffs, his neighbors, contend that the resulting sights, smells and sounds have disturbed the quiet enjoyment of their property. These are issues that neighborly people could have resolved with reasonable give-and-take, and reached thereby a result superior to that which can be achieved through a binary court decision based on property rights.”
It’s not exactly clear why the three neighbors are so against Williams and his garage. They claim that he’s operating an illegal auto repair business, but Williams insists he does not take any money for anything he does.
As some commenters have pointed out, the judge here seems surprisingly smart and entertaining, at one point referencing The Simpsons in a footnote:
30 Perhaps Williams, like Moe Szyslak, finds “garage” effete and Frenchfied: Moe: The “garage”? Hey fellas, the “garage”! Well, ooh la di da, Mr. French Man. Homer: Well what do you call it? Moe: A car hole! See The Simpsons, The Springfield Connection (Fox television broadcast May 7, 1995).
It should also be mentioned that Williams has another nearby neighbor who has no issues with Williams’ garage whatsoever.
According to the Gazette, Williams actually did attempt to apply for a permit to operate a repair shop in 2012, as a response to the animosity from the neighbors, though he stated to the county council that he only intended to work on cars with his friends. The council denied the permit, but only because one wouldn’t be needed to do what he wanted to do. From the county council records:
In summary, this motion for denial should not be seen as putting a stop to what Mr. Williams and his friends can do on the property. Instead, Mr. Johnson feels that their current activities do not necessarily require County regulation in the form of a Conditional Use, so the Commission should not impose one upon them, unless the character and nature of these that can occur on the property by the property owner and his friends.
So, it really seems the county is fine with a guy having a nice garage to work on cars in. It’s really not exactly clear why the neighbors are so driven to stop Williams from enjoying himself with cars. They’ve spent nearly $50,000 combined to sue him, and Williams states that he’s had to spend around $30,000 to defend himself.
The neighbors’ opposition sometimes takes strange forms, like these signs that were placed near Williams’ property, suggesting he was a “LAWLESS ONE” whom Jesus was going to kill by breathing on him:
I’d really hope that if Jesus ever comes back to Earth, he’ll have other things to do than to kill wheelchair-using gearheads with his terrible breath, but what do I know. I’m no theologian.
Foulke and Kane also suggest in the video interviews that there’s a sort of slippery slope at play here. That if they let Williams work on cars with his friends (and, they insinuate, run an illegal repair shop), then, somehow, every neighbor around will build similar garages and everyone will start repairing cars at their home, until their entire community is a mass of piled tires and rivers of 10W-40.
While that sounds like paradise to many of us, it’s also an absolutely absurd conclusion. I don’t think it’s the perceived fear of building codes that’s keeping a massive explosion in home-based auto repair garages at bay; it’s far more likely to be a combination of lack of money, skill, and interest by almost everyone else, coupled with a healthy dose of what the fuck are you talking about, anyway.
All the parties are still waiting on a final decision from the judge before this whole mess is finished. And, if that decision favors Williams—as history and basic decency suggest it will—it’s still quite likely things will not be over.
Would there be this sort of uproar if Williams had a large garden, or a large greenhouse? That sort of hobby has equipment that makes noise, fertilizer that produces odors, and could be the sort of thing Williams does with friends. I suspect that such a use of the land would not generate this degree of vitriol.
Let the man have his garage. Let him work with his friends on cars. If the neighbors had been more receptive, they could have had a nearby friend who’d help them maintain and repair their cars, instead of making an expensive, undeserving adversary.