New Haven neighbors fear repeat of ’97 garage fire

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by Forrest Berkshire

New Haven neighbors of a garage that caught fire and caused part of the city to evacuate nearly 17 years ago are claiming the owner is operating in violation of his previous agreement with the city and is endangering a nearby school.

The owner, Billy Holbert, said Thursday that he never agreed to stop working on propane-hauling trucks following a Jan. 10, 1997, fire at his business, Holbert’s Auto Center, located at 343 Center St. The garage is located about a block from New Haven School, which houses kindergarten through eighth grade.

Holbert said he has been working on the trucks for years, and never heard complaints until about six months ago, when a neighbor filed a complaint.

But working on the propane trucks violates an agreement Holbert reached with the city following the fire, said Freddy DeWitt, New Haven fire chief, who fought the 1997 fire.

“It upset the neighborhood, which I don’t blame them,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt was chief at the time and also on the county Board of Adjustment. DeWitt said it was late in 1997 when Holbert agreed with the city not to work on propane trucks.

Janet Johnston-Crowe, director of the Joint City-County Planning Commission of Nelson County, said it was the commission’s opinion that Holbert is not operating in compliance with his zoning designation.

“We don’t agree with their assessment, but we are working with them,” said Holbert’s attorney, James T. Willett III.

Willett said he had not heard of any allegation of a prior agreement with the city concerning work on propane trucks.

Willett said he is working with the Planning Commission to come to an “amicable resolution.”

“He’s operated in the same manner for decades,” Willett said.

Willett said, according to the law, that if Holbert has been operating in such a manner for more than 10 years, then the Planning Commission cannot make him stop.

Complicating the issue is the paperwork, Willett and Johnston-Crowe agreed.

In 1987, according to the commission’s records, Holbert’s property was rezoned from residential to business.

Included in the zoning file, obtained by the Standard through an open records request, a handwritten note bearing Holbert’s signature and dated Jan. 20, 1987, states, “I voluntarily agree to restrict the usage on this property to exactly what is being done now. That is, for a car repair shop, body shop, and for occasional car sales.

“No other uses for B-4 (the zoning designation of the property) will be allowed on this property.”

Johnston-Crowe wrote a Nov. 8, 2011, letter to Holbert informing him that, based on the lack of a definition of “car” in the original zoning agreement, she was interpreting that to mean passenger cars and other vehicles under two tons.

Also included in the file is a complaint form dated Oct. 3, 2011, from an “adjoining neighbor,” stating that Holbert had an AmeriGas truck sitting in his driveway and that the complainant was “concerned that he may be working on gas trucks again at his residence.”

Johnston-Crowe said she has worked in her position for almost 11 years, and complaints about the garage have only recently reached her office.

DeWitt said he has heard the complaints, but said many of the people who have complained to him “didn’t want to get involved.”

DeWitt and Johnston-Crowe said one complication to the commission’s investigation into the allegations was that it was difficult to get photographic evidence of the propane trucks. DeWitt said people who complained to him were reluctant to photograph them because they didn’t want to be subpoenaed to testify. Johnston-Crowe said with the commission’s limited staff, it was difficult to make it from Bardstown to New Haven to get a photo before the trucks were off the property.

DeWitt said he has safety concerns if propane trucks are being worked on at the property, based on his experience with the 1997 fire.

According to descriptions given to the Standard in its Jan. 13, 1997, edition, huge balls of flame shot skyward, with firefighters remaining in the bitter cold for hours while they battled the blaze.

DeWitt said the fire started after Holbert pulled a 2,800-gallon AmeriGas propane hauler into his garage for it to be worked on, where he used a stove for heat.

There was a leak in one of the hoses on the truck, and the building filled with gas and was ignited by the stove.

About 25 people in the immediate area surrounding the fire were evacuated.

DeWitt said the fire could have been much worse. He said safety valves on the tank opened as they are designed to in case of a fire, releasing the pressure into plumes of flame that shot into the air.

“We could have had an explosion,” DeWitt said, had the valves not popped. “It would have taken out several homes and part of the school.”