Oak Forest Estates residents file suit against Vernon, claiming housing violations

07/23/2014 12:00 AM

07/22/2014 11:33 AM

Residents of Oak Forest Estates in North Raleigh are fighting to keep a well-known landlord from establishing what they say is a boarding house in their neighborhood.

A group of 29 residents has filed a suit against Vernon J. Vernon, the owner of 3204 Hickory Road, claiming he has violated the neighborhood’s property restrictions.

Vernon obtained a permit on May 21, 2013, to convert the residence into a duplex, a process he says is approximately 75 percent complete. Current restrictions allow “one detached dwelling, intended to be occupied by one family only.” However, the current restrictive covenants were amended on May 28, 2013, a week after Vernon was issued a permit to begin construction.

“I pulled the permits before they changed the law,” Vernon said. “I am legal in what I’m doing.”

His neighbors disagree.

“Everyone agrees that he is violating the city code,” homeowner George Ake said in an email to City Councilmember Wayne Maiorano. “He just knows how to cause major problems for the city.”

According to Mack Paul of Morningstar Law Group, retroactively enforcing a restrictive covenant can be a tricky situation, and each case depends on circumstances and precedent.

Records show three tenants are paying rent weekly to live in the house, but according to Vernon, the inhabitants are legally considered a family group. The Wake County Unified Development Ordinance defines a family as “a group of not more than 7 persons, who need not be related by blood, marriage, or adoption, living together in a dwelling unit.”

According to Nicolette Fulton, associate city attorney, the City of Raleigh is in the midst of an investigation into the dispute.

Both sides are determined to see the matter to its end.

“We will not let up on this,” Maiorano said in an email to Ake. The Oak Forest Estates homeowner says Maiorano has been instrumental in helping the residents, who have hired attorney Sean Delaney to represent them and spent nearly $19,000 in the case so far.

“He is phenomenal,” Ake said. “He wants to do what’s right.”

“I don’t know the word ‘quit,’” Vernon said, adding that he plans to move back into the house after construction is complete.

“I acquired the property legally, and I’m operating my business legally,” he said. “The problem is they don’t like it.”

Vernon came under scrutiny five years ago for leasing practices in a number of properties he called vacation rentals. Tenants described substandard living conditions in a News & Observer story from May 9, 2009. In 2008, the Inspections Department listed 23 citations for various infractions, including overcrowding and illegal installations of appliances.

“I think Mr. Vernon seems to exploit fragile communities and a lot of low-wealth citizens with his practices,” said City Councilman Thomas Crowder in the 2009 article.

Vernon describes himself as a legitimate business owner and a caring father, and says the media has misrepresented him in the past.

“Frankly, I don’t give a damn,” he said.

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