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Woman who took over Norwich house can't get permit for electricity

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published March 04. 2014 4:00AM
Ordinance leaves her in the cold

Norwich - Margaret Gorman has been fighting City Hall these past several weeks, and at this point, she's losing.

But Gorman's frustration could lead to a change in a city ordinance that would give city planning, zoning and building officials more flexibility in deciding whether to issue permits if a property owner has a payment plan to erase back tax bills.

Gorman, 54, needs building permits to do needed electrical work at a house she owns at 81 North St. In November, Gorman took over ownership of the house from an estranged sister, but inherited the house's $22,000 overdue tax bill, other liens, the house's outdated and frayed electrical system and even damage to plumbing and sewer systems caused by thieves who stole metal when the house was vacant.

Gorman has a tax payment plan, but when she sent a licensed electrician to the city building department to obtain a building permit to restore electricity, Gorman ran into a wall.

A Norwich ordinance prohibits officials from issuing permits on properties where back taxes are owed, and makes no provision for someone on a regular payment plan, said city Director of Planning and Development Peter Davis.

Gorman already has cut the tax debt to less than $15,000 by making a large down payment and regular payments of $2,100 per month.

Despite the strict language in the ordinance, Gorman believes she deserves a medical exemption allowed in state law. She has electrically powered medical equipment she needs to plug in daily. Until last weekend, Gorman had been living in a small trailer in Preston, but the leaky trailer has a mold problem, and she needed to move immediately.

Again, however, city officials said the health exemption doesn't apply, first because the house was vacant at the time Gorman applied for the permit. Davis said also that the exemption is for "public health and safety," rather than an individual's situation. For example, the exemption would cover demolition permits for a house damaged by fire or roof repairs for a rental property where the roof was leaking or sagging and tenants were placed at risk.

Davis said the ordinance was enacted about 10 years ago in response to landlords repeatedly obtaining permits for rental properties where back taxes were owed. He plans to ask the City Council to consider amending the ordinance to allow the building official more flexibility if a property owner has a tax payment plan or other extenuating circumstances.

A month ago, inspectors had to deny a permit to a prospective home buyer - a veteran - because the abandoned house he was trying to buy through a VA loan needed work and had back taxes owed.

"We don't want to be a bunch of hard-liners," Davis said, "but we have to be consistent and treat everyone the same. That is what we are constantly advised to do relative to (building) codes. Treat everybody consistently and equally."

Gorman feels she shouldn't have to wait the weeks or months it could take for an ordinance change - time to write the change, advertise and hold a public hearing and vote by the City Council.

"I did everything right," a frustrated Gorman said last week. "I got the liens off the house my sister had. … I'm living there. It's my residence. It's a health and safety issue."

Gorman said after getting nowhere with city officials - she has spoken to Mayor Deberey Hinchey, Alderman Mark Bettencourt, Davis, Director of Inspections James Troeger and city tax officials - she called the governor's office and the state attorney general.

"This is inhumane that they want me to stay there at night with no heat," she said.

Troeger said from a building safety standpoint, the situation is more complicated because of the electrical and plumbing damage caused by metal thieves. Turning on the electric panel wouldn't power the house and would be dangerous, because wires are frayed and missing. Much more work would be needed.

Gorman said she knows about the other problems, but just wants the permits for the electric work so she can have power to make coffee, use a space heater and have power to continue cleaning out the house to make it livable.

The city has less authority over single-family homes, where owners are free to live without heat or power, Troeger said, but he couldn't issue a permit for partial electrical work that would create a new hazard.

Gorman said she knows more work is needed, but the city wouldn't give her a permit for that either. She said she even obtained a note from her doctor to prove to city officials that there is a health issue.

"They said 'you can't turn on your electricity.' I said 'I know that,'" she said. "I can't use my stove, I can't use my microwave. There's no reason I can't get a permit."

c.bessette@theday.com

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