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Business owner takes city to court

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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On the day in 2006 that she was fired from the job she had held for 12 years, Waltham City Councilor Serafina “Sally’’ Collura called the city’s building inspector on her former employer.

Since then, 76-year-old Robert Snyder has been engaged in a legal battle with the city to prove that the building he has owned and used since 1997 has been in compliance with city zoning laws, according to public records. Snyder’s lawyer estimates that his client has spent between $25,000 and $30,000 in legal and consulting fees on the case.

Last December, Snyder filed suit in US District Court in Boston alleging that Collura and other city officials violated his civil rights by participating in a conspiracy to cite his Grant Street property for nonexistent zoning violations. The lawsuit seeks up to $400,000 in damages

In the latest development in the lawsuit, a federal judge ruled that the case should proceed, and gave the two sides until the end of this month to complete the discovery process, in anticipation of a trial next year.

Snyder said the lawsuit is not just about his situation.

“It isn’t this case alone. It’s all the cases that everyone has in all these cities where people are these little Caesars. I had to take a stand,’’ he said. “I’ve lived a very good, honest life.’’

However, Waltham officials maintain that Snyder was violating zoning regulations, and they are attempting to gain access to his company’s property to see whether he’s still in violation, according to a city lawyer. The city has ordered Snyder to pay hundreds of dollars in fines that have never been paid. Officials also filed a complaint against him in Waltham District Court but the case was dismissed.

Collura referred questions to her lawyer, who defended his client’s actions, and denied the allegations in Snyder’s lawsuit.

“Councilor Collura did the right thing that we’d want any other public official to do’’ in reporting the alleged zoning violations, Thomas Donahue said. He said his client had not contacted the building inspector sooner because she feared losing her job, and added that she is “upset by these allegations, and she very much looks forward to being vindicated in court.’’

Two other defendants — Waltham’s building commissioner, Ralph Gaudet, and building inspector Patrick Powell — didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a city lawyer representing them said her clients were doing their job in looking into Snyder’s use of the building.

“Mr. Gaudet and Mr. Powell are adamant that they did nothing wrong, and note that lawsuits such as this have a chilling effect on their ability to enforce zoning ordinances,’’ said Bernadette Sewell, an assistant city solicitor.

According to federal court files and public records, Snyder fired Collura on Aug. 15, 2006, from Engineered Tooling Corp. His lawsuit states that she had been using company time and money to run her Moody Street business, the Tea Leaf, as well as work on her Waltham community-access television show.

The same day, Collura filed an unemployment claim that was denied by the state, records show, and called Powell to report Snyder’s building for zoning noncompliance.

In addition to Snyder’s business, the building at 57 Grant St. houses a licensed masseuse and a paralegal’s office, according to city and state records. The same tenants were there in 2006.

According to court papers, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals had approved a variance for the property in 1967 that allowed its use for three professional offices. The issue, according to public records, was whether the tenants qualified as professional offices.

Three months after her first complaint, Collura sent an e-mail to Gaudet asking that the case be forwarded to the city’s Law Department. The Building Department conducted inspections of the property in February 2007.

In June 2007, Powell sent a letter to Snyder ordering him to cease and desist his operations or face a $300-per-day fine, alleging that the businesses in his building did not meet the zoning’s definition, and that one tenant was occasionally sleeping there overnight.

On Nov. 30, 2007, Powell fined Snyder $50. Then, on May 21, 2008, Powell issued a fine of $200. The next day, Powell wrote a citation carrying a $300 fine to be assessed daily until Snyder complied.

Sewell, the city’s lawyer, said recently that none of the fines had been paid.

The city’s Building Department sought a complaint against Snyder in Waltham District Court in December 2007, alleging zoning violations. The court dismissed the complaint in December 2008.

Powell informed Snyder in writing that to contest his cease-and-desist order, Snyder had to go to the Zoning Board of Appeals to request a new variance for his property. But when Snyder appeared before the board on Sept. 9, 2008, its members told him that he shouldn’t have applied for a revised permit, but instead should have appealed Powell’s order, according to a transcript of the meeting. The board voted unanimously to allow Snyder to withdraw his request.

“I had a lot of medical problems and sleepless nights. I was in fear of losing my business because of the fines,’’ said Snyder. “That’s the way it was. I had many, many nights in those first three years when I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t concentrate.’’

Waltham maintains that Snyder has violated the law and could still be in violation.

“The city is attempting to gain access to the property through discovery,’’ under the procedures for a federal lawsuit, Sewell said, “as its request for an informal view was denied by Mr. Snyder.’’

She said Powell and Gaudet followed up on Collura’s complaints in the same manner they would respond to tips from anyone else.

Though Waltham’s Law Department is defending Powell and Gaudet in the case, Collura is using a private lawyer.

John Cervone, Waltham’s city solicitor, said he could not predict whether the city will pick up the tab for Collura’s legal bills.