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Petite Eiffel Tower rises in northeast Roanoke, over city's objection

Petite Eiffel Tower rises in northeast Roanoke, over city's objection

In the face of complaints and citations, the couple who owns the tower and amusement rides -- including a 38,000 pound Gravitron -- says the display is within their rights.

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A Roanoke couple won a court appeal to keep a vintage Gravitron amusement ride in their northeast Roanoke back yard this summer and then celebrated by erecting a lighted, three-story Eiffel Tower replica.

Now Darryl Thompson and Michael Atkins are facing five new citations from the city’s code enforcement department.

“They lost the fight over our gravitron [sic] ride and now they are back with a vengeance …Why can’t we have a [sic] equal right to use our property as we deem fit since it is not open to the public and not for commercial gain,” Thompson wrote on his Facebook page.

“Welcome to Pyongyang folks,” he added, referring to the capital of North Korea and the despotic Kim Jong Un regime.

Roanoke Planning Director Chris Chittum said the city held off on new citations during the couple’s challenge of a Board of Zoning Appeals decision that the $221,000 Gravitron ride violated zoning restrictions.

Once that ruling was overturned in late July, a code enforcement officer cited the men over what Chittum called “a lot of complaints” from neighbors.

Two citations involve commercial tow trucks parked on the couple’s 1.4 acre Huntington Boulevard lot.

Two involve the 40-foot version of the famed 984-foot Eiffel Tower in Paris, one for failure to obtain a building permit to erect the “structure” and one for not obtaining a zoning permit for it.

Thompson posted a photo of the tower July 30 on Facebook with the note: “No I am not crazy ... I just know how to say ‘f — you’ bigger than anyone in this city.” He also said the piece is for sale.

The last violation cites impermissible commercial amusement operation.

The first two citations can be remedied by moving the trucks.

The men and their attorney, Monica Mroz, declined to comment; they have appealed the latest violations, arguing that the tower is an “art piece,” not a “structure,” and therefore doesn’t require permits. Their collection of vintage rides isn’t a commercial operation, they said, because they don’t charge for rides.

The couple’s conflict with the city dates to earlier this year when the officials cited them for having a “commercial vehicle” — the 38,000 pound Gravitron — in their yard.

Thompson works in the amusement rides transportation business and is a collector. He and Atkins bought the house on Huntington so they could display some of Thompson’s collection in the back yard and allow friends and their children to ride.

The Gravitron is one of four rides on the property. It and one other, valued at $800,000, recently were vandalized with anti-gay slurs spray-painted on them.

The couple lost an appeal over the Gravitron when they failed to get four votes in their favor from the Board of Zoning Appeals. Only four members were present and one voted against the appeal.

In Roanoke Circuit Court, Judge David Carson overturned the ruling in a July 21 opinion, saying the Gravitron is not a commercial vehicle but an amusement device that must be hauled on another commercial vehicle to travel.

On Aug. 19, City Code Compliance Inspector Matt Duffy issued the five new citations.

“We’ve received numerous complaints about the activities and equipment that have showed up on the property,” said Chittum, the planning director.

He said the point of classifications such as residential zoning on Huntington is to provide people who live there clear expectations of how property can be used. “One of them is not to have large pieces of amusement equipment,” he said.

Roanoke Zoning Administrator Jillian Papa Moore ruled in August that the collection of rides is “substantially the same” as the prohibited use of “amusement, commercial, outdoor” in the city’s zoning ordinance.

In their appeal, Thompson and Atkins argue that their “private collection” isn’t a commercial operation at all. The location is a private home, not a commercial establishment; the rides aren’t available to the general public; and the couple do not charge for rides. Therefore, they said, their collection doesn’t meet the criteria Moore cited.

The Eiffel replica, they say, is neither a building nor a structure, so permits aren’t necessary. They refer to the definitions in the statewide building code, which indicates structures are covered by roofs and built for occupancy.

The tower, they write, is a 1990 commissioned artistic display for the Le Metropolitan Cafe in Columbus, Ohio, that the couple bought from Black Dog Salvage (the mini-Eiffel was featured in an episode of the cable TV show “Salvage Dawgs”). There’s no roof, and it isn’t meant to be occupied.

“It is not used for anything,” they wrote. “It is a piece of art.”

The zoning appeals boards is expected to hear the couple’s challenges in November.

The challenge to the building permit violation is scheduled to be heard by the city’s Building and Fire Code Appeals Board. That body is called into service so infrequently — an average of once a year or less — that it has no regular meeting schedule. That appeal will be heard at a called meeting, Chittum said.

Until then, the General District Court proceedings regarding the three violations will remain on hold.

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