The Sage of Sandholm Street and I were conversing many years ago about a local neighborhood issue. I remarked, “Well, Gordon, you know when the City gets involved, it makes winners and losers.” He gently corrected me. He said, “Doc, you are half right. But actually, when the City gets involved, it makes losers of everyone.” The Sage lives in Julius Alexander’s old house that was built across State Street from the Dunkin’ in about 1839. The Sage moved the Alexander house decades ago from State Street to Sandholm Street to a large lot. He also has close personal ties to the Mill Race Inn site that go beyond Julius Alexander. That is a story for another time.
The garish Dunkin’ spectacle on public display at the southeast corner of Crissey Avenue and E. State Street on Geneva’s east side tells a story of official municipally sponsored decline and decay. This descent into a blighted state is accelerating because of an illiteracy problem at Geneva City Hall. An example of this comprehension deficit can be found by examining two declarative sentences taken from Geneva’s Municipal Code that are written in the English language: 1) “The proposed building, other structures and use comply with any and all regulations, conditions or requirements of the city applicable to such building, structure or use;” and, 2) “It shall be unlawful for any person to erect or maintain any building or structure which encroaches upon any public street or other property.”
The first sentence is Standard Eight of the nine mandatory standards in Geneva’s Special Use provision, contained in Title 11, Zoning. The second sentence is a regulation drawn from the Geneva Municipal Code, Title Eight, Public Ways, and Property. No dispute can arise over whether the Green Wall of Crissey Avenue encroaches into the public right of way of Crissey Avenue. This encroachment is depicted in Geneva Special Use Ordinance 2018-36, which allowed a special use drive-through after the mayor, who only votes when a tie exists, voted to pass the ordinance. Now, “any person” commits an “unlawful” act when that person “maintain(s)” a wall that encroaches upon the public right of way of Crissey Avenue.
What would Forrest Crissey say about this? After all, he wrote the book “Tattlings of a Retired Politician.” Until recently, a Genevan ascending the East side Hill passed the first home where Forrest and Kate Shurtleff Crissey lived as renters. That home, also known as the Miller-Gully House, was allowed to deteriorate under the watchful eye of a Geneva code inspector and then was demolished. The next home up the hill to the east, the Widow Stokes Home, also recently destroyed, was where August Drahms grew up. Literate Genevans might know that Drahms wrote the first American textbook on criminology.
If the reader suspects that the two cited provisions of the Geneva Municipal Code have been cherry-picked, the reader is encouraged to read “Section 11-1-2: – Interpretation.” This section will explain which provisions “shall govern.” Also included in the Code is a definition of “shall:” “May/Shall: The word “may” is permissive; the word “shall” is mandatory.”
Nowhere is the honest enforcement of plain code language more critical than in older neighborhoods where diversity in home size, lot size, and affordability is coupled with substandard infrastructure and governmental mischief. When the property rights of this diverse group of owners are ignored in favor of large corporate recipients of public money gifts such as sales tax kickbacks, TIF, grants, and wink and nod gratuitous zoning “reliefs,” demolition follows. For example, the Dunkin green wall stands while unlawfully encroaching the Crissey right of way, but the historic affordable home in the picture does not. Over the past couple of decades, the City of Geneva’s slipshod wink and nod “bending” of zoning rules has nearly destroyed my neighborhood via demolition by neglect.