Need a symbol of all that’s wrong with how we deal with each other – and how we waste government money doing it? Head to Chestnut Hill and gaze upon the chain-link fence that bisects the alley between 8405 and 8407 Germantown Ave.
The building to your right – 8405 – belongs to brash landlord/developer Richard Snowden. He owns high-end Bowman Properties and his power over Chestnut Hill’s built environment has been both praised and feared. Under his watch, dozens of shabby storefronts have gone chic or shabby-chic, their quirkiness under control.
They’re really lovely.
George Hobe is the genial, shaggy-haired owner of George Hobe Antiques at 8407 Germantown, next door. His shop is real-deal shabby, crowded with art and oddities, most of it under a layer of dust. The store bustles with friends and customers who pop in all day long. On warm days, they also pop a bottle for happy hour on Hobe’s sidewalk bench.
It’s a really fun spot.
Snowden and Hobe have deep yards behind their buildings, accessed by a shared driveway off a side street, Gravers Lane. The space offers ample, enviable parking in a neighborhood woefully short on it.
Both men say they discussed blending their tired-looking yards into a big, shared, meticulously landscaped parking area. Snowden says their talks constituted an agreement, though he got nothing in writing from Hobe – a strange oversight, considering the many properties he has bought, sold, and rented. Hobe says they never agreed to anything.
So Hobe was furious on Sept. 17, 2013, when he saw workers paving over 800 square feet of his yard’s red-stone gravel. They were there under Snowden's direction.
“I said to Richard, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” recalls Hobe. “He said, ‘C’mon this is good for your property value!’ I said I don’t need anyone to tell me what’s good for me. I want my red stone back!”
Hobe says it took two years of continual badgering before Snowden finally returned the yard to its prior condition. Then things got stupid.
Snowden and Hobe agree that in November of 2015, a female family member of Hobe’s argued with two men who were working on Snowden’s property. Afterward, Snowden installed a free-standing chain-link fence that bisects the very skinny shared alley that separates his and Hobe’s buildings.
Hobe now has difficulty getting in and out of his house through its side door and pulling trash cans out to the street. And the fence looks like hell.
“I call it ‘Richard Snowden’s Spite Fence,’ because Richard didn’t get his way,” says Hobe.
“George’s guest menaced, threatened, and intimidated my workers,” responds Snowden, who didn’t report the incident to police. “Fences make good neighbors.”
Hobe, citing the difficulty of entering and exiting his own home, reported Snowden’s fence to Licenses & Inspections. Snowden was cited and many counter-arguments and visits by inspectors ensued, with L&I eventually taking Snowden to court. Ultimately, L&I threw up its hands, deciding that Snowden’s fence didn’t impede Hobe’s ability to enter and exit his home (but, man, is it a tight squeeze). Since it was a temporary fence, it also didn’t require permits.
But the fence has definitely outgrown its “temporary” status, notes L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss.
“We define ‘temporary’ as six months,” she says, and the fence has been in place since the end of 2015. “Mr. Snowden needs to take it down or get the permits he needs for a permanent one. We’ll be issuing another citation.”
Which will start the L&I monitoring process all over again. Which will eat up time and resources the department should be spending on legitimate threats to public safety – and there are plenty in this bone-tired city of decrepit, wobbly, neglected buildings.
In 2015 alone, L&I’s 55 inspectors wrote over 75,000 citations, responded to nearly 40,000 service requests and completed annual fire inspections of high-risk buildings such as high rises, family day cares and schools.
The more time they’re able to devote to these inspections, the more catastrophes they’ll help prevent. Spiteful cases – and this fence business looks mighty spiteful to me – disrespect the department’s time and disregard the public’s money.
That L&I’s inspectors respond anyway is to their credit. But it's a disgrace they were needed in this case.
Conversation, decency, and a generous dose of humility would've saved everyone a lot of time and drama. And an apology would've gone a long way, too.