Five years after drug bust, neighbors fear things going to pot in a different way

Neighbors of 31 Yeadon Ave. have been frustrated by the city’s inability to stop the property from being rented out as a duplex.

Charleston police felt Edward Ross Atkins was breaking the law when they discovered dozens of marijuana plants growing inside his Byrnes Downs home.

Four years later, city authorities are less sure about the legality of how Atkins is currently using the 31 Yeadon Ave. property.

Neighbors say Atkins has been renting it as a duplex for years — in direct violation of a court order declaring it a single-family home.

Atkins’ attorney says that’s not true — the property has only one lease and hasn’t been occupied by more than four unrelated people, the maximum allowed for a single home under the city’s zoning ordinance.

The property was advertised online a few weeks ago as “being divided into two separate living quarters and its upstairs has its own private entrance.”

City Councilman Bill Moody has been caught in between the neighbors’ frustration and the city’s legal department, which has remained aware of the case and interviewed the owner earlier this year, but has not shut the rental down.

“The neighbors are right to be upset. This guy is renting it as a duplex, but there is no way you can really enforce what he’s doing,” Moody said, noting both upstairs and downstairs tenants sign on a single lease. “He keeps it just on that side of the law.”

In an age when dividing up a house into smaller units can trigger a major neighborhood debate — as seen recently in the charged zoning discussion over the conversion of 1 Meeting St. mansion downtown into three residential units — it’s unclear if Atkins has found a work-around that other property owners seeking to rent their home to multiple tenants may follow.

Kappe Manuel, who lives directly across the street, has chronicled her neighbors’ property ever since the October 2011 marijuana bust — a case that ultimately led to federal charges and a brief prison term for Atkins.

The discovery that the house was not a home but a greenhouse made her and other neighbors realize that Atkins had lost his exception that allowed him to use the relatively large Byrnes Down home as a duplex. The city’s Board of Zoning Appeals agreed, but Atkins’ attorney, Tim Kulp, appealed the board’s decision to Circuit Court. Circuit Judge Markley Dennis ruled in favor of the city, but Kulp filed a motion to reconsider, saying Atkins could lose thousands of dollars as a result. It was not successful.

“We said, ‘Oh! Time’s up!’ ” Manuel said.

Any sense of celebration soon ended. Manuel noticed Atkins still was advertising the property as separate units — and even had her nephew respond to the ad to get more facts. “My sister refused to have her son go through with visiting this house. She said, ‘Don’t you get involved with this.’ ”

Atkins did take some steps, such as removing one of two mailboxes and having all tenants share a trash container, Manuel said.

But she and her other neighbor Aaron Dias said they could tell — from the number of cars on the street and from how tenants were entering and leaving the property — that it was continuing to function as a duplex, not a single-family home.

“It’s so in-your-face,” Dias said. “It’s laughable, but it’s so frustrating.”

With the latest Craigslist ad posted late last month, Dias said, “It’s so obvious that he’s not even trying to put lipstick on the pig anymore, and we cannot even get a response from the city. Why do we have to be the police?”

Atkins, who received a 24-month federal prison sentence in 2012, currently has a different West Ashley address and referred questions to Kulp, who blasted the neighbors for singling out his client.

Kulp said Atkins, like any homeowner, wanted to rent his property, and he walked the house with City Zoning Administrator Lee Batchelder who said he would be satisfied if its residents all were on one lease.

“It’s just a shame when people have too much time on their hands and try to wag an entire city government by the tail for their own interests,” Kulp said. “There’s absolutely nothing about that property that’s offensive to any of the neighbors. There are no fraternity keg parities over there with cars parked in front of people’s yards.”

“This makes a squeaky wheel look like a train wreck or an atomic bomb going off,” he added.

But another neighbor, Carol Conklin, said the parking issue creates a problem. The house at 31 Yeadon has only a single, narrow driveway, but its tenants have had at least four cars and a boat in the driveway and along the street. “There are regularly two cars in front of my house,” she said.

Neighbors also noted earlier this year that two cars sideswiped each other on Yeadon — in between a car parked on the 31 Yeadon side of the street near Atkins’ property. The tenants’ work van was damaged in the accident, and Dias said a tow truck driver was unable to remove one vehicle because the first-floor tenants did not know how to reach the second-floor tenants so they could move their car.

It’s unclear what, if anything, the tenants at 31 Yeadon make of all this. A female tenant reached last week said she was moving out soon and did not have time to talk.

Kulp said the parking problem is not really a problem at all. “There are excess cars parked around there every time someone had a kid’s birthday party or at Christmas or Thanksgiving,” he said. “That’s just another empty complaint.”

Kulp said he met with city attorneys in March, “and everything was fine, pending further notice.”

City spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn, who also happens to live on the same street, did not respond to repeated requests from The Post and Courier for an update on the city’s legal position on the disputed property.

In her complaint to the city earlier this year, Manuel wrote that the city has an obligation to Byrnes Downs residents to come up with a long-term solution.

“Scrutinizing new individual leases ad infinitum is an untenable approach,” she wrote. “I am asking you to help us maintain the integrity of the neighborhood and the spirit of the laws that protect us.”

Kulp wondered when the neighbors will accept the status quo like the city has.

“At what point does a citizen have to accept an answer from a governing body that they don’t agree with?” he said. “There has to be a limit to that.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.