Three families in Westbrook were left homeless in February when their apartment building was condemned by building officials in Westbrook.
A contracted building inspector, Carl Brown, and the town’s health director, Sonia Marino, were called to the house at 1296-1306 Boston Post Road after one of the tenants complained of no heat on Feb. 20, according to town records.
First Selectman Noel Bishop and other town officials joined Brown and Marino.
The home was placarded for fire, safety and zoning violations, and eight tenants living in three units were forced to immediately evacuate.
"They said if I don’t let them in, they would come back with a warrant," said Larry Belz, who first moved into the building in December with his wife and three children.
"What they said publicly was, 'With what we saw, we would not permit our own families to stay the night,'" said First Selectman Noel Bishop, who added that it wasn't the first time the town was called to the property. "There have been cease-and-desist orders from the town on multiple occasions."
The problems surrounding the property are well documented in a nearly 8-inch-thick file at the land use office in Westbrook Town Hall.
Records show the property was purchased in foreclosure in 2012 by 1306 Post Road LLC. The owner of record is Gunar Murtishi. Her husband, Joseph Barbieri, was the property manager.
The private mortgage lender was RC Patel, LLC. The principal listed with the secretary of the state is Dr. Rashmi C. Patel, an Enfield-based dentist currently facing charges of criminally negligent homicide and tampering with evidence stemming from the death of a patient under his care in February 2014. Patel says the LLC is made up of himself and members of his family.
Records show foreclosure filings in 2013 and 2014.
And this past Feb. 17, just days before the home was condemned, RC Patel LLC foreclosed on the property and took control of it.
Safety and building code violations for the property, which includes the main house at 1306 and a separate dwelling at 1296 Boston Post Road, were first cited in May 2013 by town building inspector Roger Zito. The property was condemned and tenants displaced in March 2014 for safety violations and illegal use – as it’s zoned as a commercial property.
"If those permits were taken out, that’s a signal, as it is for any property, for there to be an inspection in order for it to be code compliant," said Bishop.
While the violations are documented, at times, it's been unclear who is in charge of overseeing the violations.
Bishop removed the town’s building inspector, Roger Zito, from any further oversight on the property in November 2013, citing a conflict of interest between Zito and Barbieri.
That conflict has to do with a motel Barbieri purchased across the street from Zito’s home in Old Lyme.
So the town created a position of assistant building official. Deputy Fire Marshal Richard Leighton assumed the role, responsible for overseeing only one property: 1306 Boston Post Road.
According to Bishop, Leighton remained in that post until July 2014 when funding for his position dried up, but no one else was assigned to oversee that the violations were corrected. However, no records exist showing Leighton’s position was abolished at that time.
In those eight months, Barbieri began renting out the property again, without filing for permits or completing any of the required work.
This brings us back to the Belzes, who signed a two-year lease in December, paying $1,500-per-month rent and deposits ahead through this April.
Before handing over the money, they say they did their due diligence by checking with the town to make sure it’s a legal property.
Susan Belz says she was told there were no issues. The first selectman says he’s following up on her call. In the meantime, the family remains homeless, with no idea if they’ll retrieve the rent money they paid ahead for.
Murtishi would not comment on the issue surrounding the property and Barbieri did not return any calls for comment.
"It’s been absolute hell. It’s been horrible," said Susan Belz, who has spent the days since the eviction at an area motel as the family continues to look for alternative housing. "We’ve got three children, one adult child with a disability. My husband’s ill and we’re stuck in a hotel and not being told anything."
The town of Westbrook is providing assistance to the displaced residents. Each affected adult received $4,000. At a board of selectman meeting earlier in the month, the board approved an additional $2,500 for the Belzes to help with storage costs. The other two tenants, Leda Anderson and Teresa Swank, were not at the meeting did not receive any additional funds above the $4,000.
On Wednesday, the building inspector cited the dwelling at 1296 Boston Post Road for violations related to zoning and permits. According to the tenant, the owner has one week to resolve the issues with the town or she could face eviction.