‘It’s politics’: Windsor man, 95, sues transit company for bridge project that turned neighbourhood into ‘slum’
Sarah Sacheli, Postmedia News | March 7, 2017 4:33 PM ET
Jason Kryk/The Windsor Star
In a civil trial that epitomizes the showdown between David and Goliath, a 95-year-old bedridden man Monday took the Canadian operator of the Ambassador Bridge to court.
Stephen Chaborek, along with five members of the Desando family who also own homes in Olde Sandwich Towne, are suing the Canadian Transit Company. They are seeking $16.5 million in damages for turning their once pleasant neighbourhood into a “slum.”
At issue are a swath of homes the bridge company has purchased and boarded up over the past two decades. The CTC says it wants to tear down the rotting structures, but the City of Windsor has used heritage bylaws to prevent demolition.
The outcome of the trial could have biblical implications for CTC; waiting in the wings are four similar lawsuits by the owners of 26 other properties in the neighbourhood. The lawsuits, also brought by Sutts, Strosberg, claim the condition of the houses constitute a “nuisance”and pose an ongoing threat to neighbours.
“The only way to make them move is to sue them,” Chaborek said in a videotaped statement shown in court Monday. Given Chaborek’s age and the fact he can’t physically attend the proceedings, the videotaped deposition takes the place of court testimony. In the video, Chaborek said there was a sudden decline of the neighbourhood after the bridge company began buying up homes in the area.
CTC lawyer Sheila Block, in an opening address to the court, pointed to a 1996 report and said the bridge company’s plans to amass land to build a second span and safely repair the existing structure has never been a secret.
Block said the bridge company embarked on a “limited and careful property acquisition plan,” paying fair market value or higher for houses on and around Indian Road. She argued the “nuisance,” if any, is the city’s fault because it won’t let CTC raze the homes. If the buildings were demolished, residents would have green space to enjoy, she said.
In a related lawsuit, CTC is suing the city for exposing it to the lawsuits from property owners. And, in yet another lawsuit, the CTC is challenging work orders the city issued for 114 properties the company owns. That issue went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada which ruled the trial should be scheduled to be heard in Superior Court in Windsor.
‘All these people loved their homes. They took care of them. The neighbourhood was nice’
“It’s not in the public interest to keep these buildings up,” Block told the court Monday. “It’s politics. It’s not the merits of whether these things should be taken down.”
Block argued the bridge company provides a “public service.” It was never the company’s intent to “terrorize the neighbourhood.”
Neighbourhoods change and when they do, residents shouldn’t turn to the courts, Block said. “You have no right to insist on your neighbourhood being the way it once was.”
Chaborek, a former autoworker who served in the navy during the Second World War, described driving through Sandwich in the early 1950s and coming upon a sign for a lot for sale on Indian Road.
There were schools in the area, a shopping district, doctors, dentists and other amenities an “established neighbourhood” should have.
He paid $700 for the lot and Chaborek, who had always worked with his hands, built the home himself.
For the video, Chaborek dug up family photos taken in 1957 and 1962 outside the home. The photos of him, his wife and two young girls, offered glimpses of what the neighbourhood looked like at the time.
“All these people loved their homes. They took care of them. The neighbourhood was nice.”
Then, he said, “The bridge came along and started wrecking everything… The bridge started buying homes and everything started to get slummy.”
The bridge tried three times to buy him out, Chaborek said. He refused. “I built this house and I’m going to stay here till the end.”
Directly across the street from Chaborek’s home is a boarded-up house surrounded by a wire fence — “the same kind of fence they use in the prisons.”
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Chaborek said the abandoned homes are a haven for raccoons, skunks and “hobos.” At first, the properties were allowed to become overgrown. When residents complained about the weeds, the bridge company began vindictively cutting the grass every other day, Chaborek said.
Property values in the area have plummeted. Chaborek’s home was assessed in 2005 at $135,000. By 2012 it was worth $114,000.
Questioned by a CTC lawyer in the video, Chaborek says he is suing to revive the neighbourhood.
“Maybe instead of wrecking homes they might fix them up and people will be living there.”
The trial is scheduled for three weeks before Superior Court Justice Thomas Carey.