Column: Valparaiso orders ‘quasi-junkyard’ family business to clean up its property, with $65000 in fines and counting – Chicago Tribune

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John Morgavan and his family feel they are being unfairly targeted by the city of Valparaiso. City officials claim Morgavan’s primary business, Valparaiso Transmission, is intentionally noncompliant to city codes and ordinances.

An attempt at third-party mediation didn’t rectify the issue, which has lingered for years. Last October, the city filed a lawsuit against Morgavan’s multiple businesses, located on the property at 1607 Lincolnway. Daily fines are now up to more than $65,000. A judge will review the case next month.

“If I don’t keep fighting, the city will run all over me like a piece of garbage,” Morgavan told me.

Patrick Lyp, the city’s attorney, told me, “We have no issue with an automotive mechanic business operating in Valparaiso. That said, none operate a quasi-junkyard on their property and have multiple violations of the city’s zoning code and property maintenance code.”

This is a shortened summary of a long-standing situation. Its longer version is more complicated, dating back roughly 15 years, especially after Morgavan purchased the adjacent property to the east. That site, a former McDonald’s, was purchased to house the overflow of vehicles being worked on.

“I was landlocked. I needed a place to park more cars,” he said.

John Morgavan and his family feel they are being unfairly targeted by the city of Valparaiso. City officials claim Morgavan’s primary business, Valparaiso Transmission, is intentionally noncompliant to city codes and ordinances.

John Morgavan and his family feel they are being unfairly targeted by the city of Valparaiso. City officials claim Morgavan’s primary business, Valparaiso Transmission, is intentionally noncompliant to city codes and ordinances. (Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)

Maintenance and upkeep of this property is one of the problems with the city. The vehicles stored there belong in a junkyard, not in a parking lot along a busy corridor zoned for commercial use, the city claims.

“One vehicle had a tree growing in it, meaning it had been there for at least one or more growing seasons,” Lyp said, showing me a photo of that vehicle. “Those scrapped vehicles are untagged, not registered, and not plated. It’s a quasi-junkyard.”

Vicki Thrasher, the city’s building commissioner and building and code enforcement director, said the property is not zoned industrial. Any other business in the city would need special-use approval from the city for such a zoning request.

“We have tried working with the property owner for a significant amount of time,” she said. “Other nearby businesses are under compliance and look more presentable.”

Morgavan said, “I get it. My property looks better all cleaned up. I’m working to fix all this. I don’t want my business to look like a sore thumb. I just need more time… to the end of the year.”

Other code violations included excessive weeds, tarps covering vehicles and building areas, broken windows and exterior bricks. Another dispute involves an on-site fireworks store that the Morgavan family has operated for 20 years.

“The fireworks store has helped my children earn money for their college education. But now the city wants us to remove our patriotic pennants. Once those pennants come down, I feel that my grandfathered clause to have them is over and they won’t be allowed back up,” said Morgavan, who’s a grandfather himself. “My ultimate plan is to give all this to my kids someday.”

Alex Morgavan, who’s worked at Valparaiso Transmission for many years, said the city flexed its political muscles last month by wrongly delaying the annual issuance of a fireworks permit for the store. “What really gets me is that nothing has changed for years at the fireworks store regarding the building or anything else,” he said. (Jerry Davich)

Alex Morgavan, who’s worked at Valparaiso Transmission for many years, said the city flexed its political muscles last month by wrongly delaying the annual issuance of a fireworks permit for the store. “What really gets me is that nothing has changed for years at the fireworks store regarding the building or anything else,” he said. (Jerry Davich) (Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)

His son, Alex Morgavan, who’s worked at Valparaiso Transmission for many years, said the city flexed its political muscles last month by wrongly delaying the annual issuance of a fireworks permit for the store. “What really gets me is that nothing has changed for years at the fireworks store regarding the building or anything else,” he said.

Indiana Code 36-1-6-4(b) allows multiple actions for a legal remedy, everything from revocation of the business license to ordering the property vacated or the structure to be demolished. Or a judge can simply order a fair judgment for both parties.

“I have a lot to lose,” said Morgavan, who opened Valpo Transmission in 1987.

He has a stack of $50 code violation fines that have not been paid, pending the judge’s decision Aug. 19.

“The fines are ripe for collection,” the lawsuit states.

Morgavan estimates the fines already tally more than $65,000, and counting, every day. He also has paid more than $100,000 on legal fees through the years.

“I can either spend my money on attorney fees or on fixing up this place,” Morgavan told me from his office. “The city is dictating all this. Not once have they come to me and asked what they could do to help.”

Last month, John Morgavan paved both properties and had to remove more than 40 vehicles to do so. The site looks noticeably better to passing motorists and pedestrians. (Jerry Davich)

Last month, John Morgavan paved both properties and had to remove more than 40 vehicles to do so. The site looks noticeably better to passing motorists and pedestrians. (Jerry Davich) (Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)

Last month, Morgavan paved both properties and had to remove more than 40 vehicles to do so. The site looks noticeably better to passing motorists and pedestrians, including me. I bike past it almost daily, which is how I found out about this legal dispute.

“Even with us refinishing both parking lots, the city has not stopped those fines,” Alex Morgavan said.

Lyp said under Indiana law, the city could fine the family’s business up to $2,500 a day. The city doesn’t want to fine the business. No other remedy has worked, he said.

“We loathe having to fine them. And we loathe having to file a lawsuit, but it’s our last resort. There is still additional compliance to be done.”

Morgavan feels he’s been targeted since he spoke up publicly more than a decade ago about the city’s redevelopment project along Lincolnway. He also questions rumored political motivations by the city toward favored developments near Valparaiso University.

Alex Morgavan in front of his family's business, Valparaiso Transmission, which has been in operation since 1987 on the east side of the city. (Jerry Davich)

Alex Morgavan in front of his family’s business, Valparaiso Transmission, which has been in operation since 1987 on the east side of the city. (Jerry Davich) (Jerry Davich / Post-Tribune)

“Maybe I’m overreacting, but it doesn’t seem fair to me. The city does what it wants for who it wants,” he said. “You can’t fight city hall. It’s very expensive and difficult. But I’m not gonna just sit here and let them run all over me.”

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Lyp said the city offers a façade improvement grant program to help businesses offset costs for exterior renovations.

“We have suggested that option to them several times,” Lyp said.

Morgavan said he has paid tens of thousands of dollars in property taxes through the years.

“And for what? I’m essentially paying these people to come after me,” he said. “I’m either all in or all out. At this point, I’m all in, and I hope I’m in the right.”