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Parking space dispute goes to world wide web

Wednesday, September 16, 1998

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A professional photographer by trade, Joel Ballon is most comfortable out of the limelight, recording rather than creating history.

That is, the 59-year-old West View resident confesses, until push comes to shove.

"I'm really very quiet," Ballon insists. "In fact, all my life I've gone out of my way not to call attention to myself. But at this point, I've encountered one bully too many."

The "bully" to which he refers is West View Police Chief Charles Holtgraver, with whom Ballon has locked horns over a steady stream of $10 parking tickets - and as a result, has made the unfortunate focus of his Web site, "My Official West View, Pa Homepage."

Joe Ballon is fighting the town of West View because of the parking tickets he has gotten outside his home on Perry Highway. Ballon says the place where he parks is his property and he never had a problem parking there until the new police chief arrived in West View. Photograph by Annie O'Neill

On it, Ballon unmercifully takes the chief to task over what he considers a groundless "serial issuance" of tickets. He even goes so far as to compare West View to a police state and demand Holtgraver's resignation.

What could prompt such an action? For the past 28 years, Ballon claims, he has been parking cars on the wide expanse of concrete in front of his home, above the former Angel Studio on Perry Highway, which he owned and operated for more than two decades with nary a problem.

No complaints, as Ballon says the chief alleges, from residents or other business owners that he was blocking their view; no warnings from previous police chiefs that he was in violation of the zoning ordinance; no requests from council or the mayor that he apply for a zoning variance to install a "proper" parking space, complete with curb cuts. Then, about nine months ago, Ballon says, not long after Holtgraver became chief, he received the first of what would eventually number eight citations for "sidewalk obstruction," or parking his '88 Delta parallel to the front of the building, which sits next door to the West View Volunteer Fire Department. "I'm being penalized because my property happened to sit back on my lot," he argues, noting how at least 3 feet of concrete exists between his "space" and the bricked sidewalk.

When Holtgraver, in an effort to work out a peaceful understanding, eventually agreed to void the first two tickets, Ballon figured his troubles were over; after West View District Justice Mark Devlin dismissed an additional two at a hearing June 16, he was certain he had won the right to park in front of his home.

Then came the kicker. Two hours after the dismissal, his car was tagged - again - for exactly the same offense: obstructing the sidewalk. So what's a frustrated resident to do? For Ballon, the answer was obvious: take his story to the masses via the Internet. "I had to vent my hostility somewhere, and I had no other way," said Ballon, who was on line that very same afternoon.

"I figured I had to suffer not being able to use my property, so (the chief) should have to suffer some bad publicity."

Still, simply creating the Web site (www.westview.com) was not enough; he also posted signs in local grocery stores as well as on numerous search engines on the Web to let citizens know it was there.

In addition to providing viewers with an overview of the situation - or as Ballon puts it, "the story in a nutshell" - the site renders a view of the property in question, photos of similar parking situations and "real" sidewalk obstructions, clips of applicable laws and "questions" for the chief. One also can view actual tickets and peruse reader feedback.

Ballon, who feels he's been singled out for some unknown reason - "That's the $64,000 question," he quips - also offers up a tongue-in-cheek quiz for readers. Question No. 1: Where, in the world, are tickets issued for parking on your own private property? To Ballon's delight, the site has proved fairly popular: as of Friday, it had chalked up more than 7,000 hits. "And the response has been very, very positive," he said, adding with a smile, "The police are appalled!"

Chief Holtgraver, of course, sees it differently.

"In the 28 years (I've been a policeman in West View) I've never seen

anyone park there," he said. "And if you check with the mayor, who has been here for 38 years, he'll tell you the same thing." In fact, just to make sure he was doing the right thing, the chief went one step further and checked with the former police and fire chiefs as well. "I looked into every option and beyond," he said.

"But the thing is, everyone agrees this has never been a parking space." The tickets, he says, came after several residents complained about Ballon's car blocking their view.

"If someone gets hit there, I'm responsible. I've tried bending over backward for the guy. All I have done is asked him to go through the proper channels," he said. As far as ticketing his car after Devlin's dismissal:

"Until there's a zoning change, I have to continue to tag him. He's still using an unauthorized parking space."

Ballon was to have had another chance in court Aug. 26 - this time before Bellevue District Justice Donald Presutti - but that hearing was postponed because Holtgraver was on vacation. So instead, the two sides will duke it out at a hearing at 3:30 this afternoon at Presutti's office at 4200 Ohio River Blvd.

What does the chief think about West View's first, and only, Web site? He lets out a hearty laugh.

"I think he did a nice job - he's very artistic." said Holtgraver. "If that's what he wants to do, more power to him." He adds, however, that he feels Ballon, who he never met before this spring, is being "vindictive."

"I have no personal vendetta against the guy," he said. "I'm just doing my job."

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