Gabriel Ferrari follows the Ten Commandments of our Heavenly Father, not the city of Asheville’s building codes.
For the past nine years, Ferrari and his wife, Livia, have battled with city officials and neighbors about the way they maintain their home: Religious signs plaster their front yard; the basement is accessed by ladder rather than stairs; walls are decorated with foil; Ferrari refuses to run electricity into the building, preferring lanterns and natural light; the house’s hot-water is provided by an unvented gas heater.
Almost all these features violate the city’s Building Safety Code and/or Sign Ordinance, according to Building Safety Code Director Terry Summey, who explained to Council members that he has tried to speak with Ferrari about complying with the city’s ordinances. “But his standards are somewhat contrary to what we have [in Asheville],” Summey said.
“I have been persecuted for nine years,” Ferrari replied, speaking broken English at times, and in eloquent ministerial cadences at others. He said he is a practicing minister, and declared that his home is a religious school.
Everything Ferrari has done to the home and its sign-bedecked yard, he has done by commandment from the Heavenly Father, he told Council. “I have a covenant with [Him],” Ferrari explained. “Each of us in the coming time — and it is close — will have to build his own house and survive on our own,” he said, pointing to heaven.
Ferrari argued that if he made the required home improvements, he would be destroying the evidence from an arson that occurred in the home’s basement not long before he bought it.
City staff responded that any investigation of that fire had long since been concluded; the fire occurred in the late 1980s.
Mayor Leni Sitnick asked Ferrari, “You do understand that we have very consistent housing-safety rules for everyone who lives in Asheville?”
“Sure,” Ferrari replied. But he reiterated that fixing the home would destroy crucial evidence of a sacrificial fire by a Satanic gang. And he accused city staff, particularly Asheville Fire Chief John Rukavina, of persecuting him over the years. City staff, attempting to get him to comply with Asheville’s sign and building-safety regulations, have, for instance, had his gas service cut off.
Summey responded, “The gas water heater was not vented properly [and] could have killed the Ferraris because of carbon monoxide poisoning.” Summey noted that neighbors had, over the years, lodged many complaints against Ferrari.
James Boehm, who lives next door, claimed that rats, snakes and other unknown animals live in the trash that Ferrari has, at times, allowed to accumulate outside. Those creatures venture into Boehm’s yard and worry him, he said. And there are “numerous signs, pointing to our house, threatening us and the city,” he added.
Ferrari told Council members, “Whatever you do to this house, the Heavenly Father will do to the community, to Asheville.”
For years, city sign-enforcement staff say they have been afraid to approach Ferrari. More recently, he refused to allow officials on the property, which forced them to obtain the equivalent of a search warrant — and to restrain Ferrari — in order to enter and inspect the home. City staff allegedly found “an arsenal” in the basement, although Ferrari disputes that. “What arsenal?” he said.
Asheville Police were concerned enough to pass metal detectors around everyone who entered the Council chambers the evening of May 26.
Council member O.T. Tomes and Sitnick tried their best to reason with Ferrari.
Sitnick stuck to the facts, listing each building-safety violation. “This has to do with health [issues] and respect for your neighbors,” she said. She explained that none of the safety issues had anything to do with a supposed fire investigation.
She also noted that Ferrari had refused to attend a 1997 hearing on the premise’s code violations; he could have requested a variance in some city rules at that time, she said.
Ferrari replied that he didn’t attend because he thought he’d be killed.
Field said there’s a public-safety concern as well: If the Ferrari home caught fire, it could endanger surrounding homes.
Tomes tried a different tact. “I can identify with you,” he told Ferrari, “because I happen to be a clergyman myself. But we are dual citizens: earthly citizens on a pilgrimage for our heavenly habitat.”
He suggested that Ferrari make the necessary safety improvements, such as wiring his home for electricity — then opt to turn it all off, if he wished. “I grew up [using] kerosene lanterns,” said Tomes, respecting Ferrari’s desire to live a bit differently than his neighbors.
He also asked staff to find an English/Italian translator and perhaps, a religious scholar to help communicate what Ferrari needs to do to meet city regulations. “I recognize there may be a …. cultural and language problem here,” Tomes observed. He noted that, when dealing with issues of faith versus civil laws, there’s an inherent dilemma. “I just want to be sure we’re being sensitive.”
“Ferrari will never understand,” said Summey, who argued that he has repeatedly attempted to get the city’s point across.
Council members Tommy Sellers and Chuck Cloninger became impatient with Ferrari’s arguments. At one point, when Ferrari attempted further comment, Cloninger said, “The public hearing has been closed. I call for us to vote and move on.”
Sellers immediately moved that the city demolish the house. Seconded by Earl Cobb, the motion passed unanimously.
City Attorney Bob Oast noted that the Ferraris can appeal the decision.
Said Sitnick to the Ferraris, “Bring your home up to code so we don’t have to demolish [it].”
Council reluctantly gives up land
Would you give away a million-dollar piece of property?
Asheville City Council members just did. On May 26, they reluctantly agreed to give Henderson County 137 acres located off Brevard Road. The land-deal had been agreed upon in 1995, as part of a regional water agreement worked out among Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson counties, explained Assistant City Manager Doug Spell.
That didn’t please Mayor Leni Sitnick, even though she was serving on City Council when that agreement was originally negotiated in 1994. During Council discussions at that time, she pointed out, city staff never specifically mentioned that part of the deal. “But the transfer was written in,” Sitnick noted.
It was part of the overall agreement, Spell explained: When Asheville bought land in Henderson County for its new Mills River water-treatment plant, the city agreed to give the Brevard Road land to Henderson, for development as a wastewater-treatment plant that would serve both south Buncombe and north Henderson counties — areas where substantial growth has been projected.
Sitnick said she understood that reasoning. “But what’s in it for Asheville?”
The city bought the property for nearly $1 million in 1982, planning at that time to use it as a water-treatment facility to treat water from the French Broad River. That plan fell through after much opposition from citizens concerned about the river’s water quality; after a lengthy search for a new drinking-water source, the city and Buncombe County turned their attention to the Mills River site.
Said Sitnick, “Putting a wastewater-treatment plant on the French Broad is a step going backwards. We’re trying to clean it up.” She mentioned the growing interest in using the French Broad for whitewater rafting and kayaking, and for establishing greenways and other improvements on its banks.
If Henderson doesn’t create some sort of wastewater-treatment facility there within the next 10 years — under the control of either a regional authority or Buncombe County’s Metropolitan Sewerage District — ownership of the land reverts to the city, Spell indicated.
“A lot can happen in 10 years,” said Sitnick. She mentioned her concern over last winter’s six-million-gallon wastewater spill at MSD’s Woodfin facility during a power failure. “Did they pay a [state] fine?” Sitnick asked.
No, Spell replied.
“Six million gallons? How is that no big deal?” Sitnick wondered out loud.
No one had a reply.
Council member Barbara Field interjected that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources will be stiffening its fines and penalties this coming year. But she, too, voiced concern over placing a wastewater-treatment plant at that site on the French Broad. She asked Spell if such a plant would have to meet federal and state water-quality requirements.
Spell responded that it would. There would also be a required period for public comment, before such a plant would be allowed, he added.
Sitnick also questioned Buncombe County’s involvement in an engineering study to consider the feasibility and costs of installing a sewer system for south Buncombe and north Henderson counties. It was her understanding that Buncombe is paying the entire cost of the study.
Spell replied that he thought that was so.
“Asheville City taxpayers pay Buncombe County taxes,” she said. So it concerned her, she said, that Henderson was not pitching in its share of the cost. Sitnick emphasized that she supports regional approaches to water, sewer and other infrastructure needs — if they don’t adversely burden Asheville and its taxpayers. Said Sitnick, “I’ve got to look after Asheville. … I believe in living up to our agreements and contracts, [but] this is a $1 million property, and we’re in fiscal straits.”
With that said — and little else to do about it — Field moved and Tommy Sellers seconded that Council approve the land-transfer agreement. The motion passed unanimously.