Community fears gas vent danger

By Queens Courier Staff |

Outraged Jamaica residents say a development company whose executives include a former Department of Buildings (DOB) inspector may be putting the community in danger with plans to pave a driveway too close to a gas vent.

Officials at Melody Development Inc. contend the work, set for the side of a small commercial building on the corner of Sutphin Boulevard and 110th Avenue is perfectly safe and notes the project has the DOB’s approval.

But gas company officials say such work shouldn’t be done within 200 feet of a gas vent. The vent is about 13 feet from the driveway site, which is to be paved over gas lines.

“My home is right next to the property,” said Felix Ogunkya, who lives in a neighboring two-family home. “If something were to go wrong it could mean this whole block gets destroyed. It’s too risky.”

National Grid marked the ground with yellow flags to specify the location of the lines, said Karen Young, a spokeswoman for the gas company. But residents said the flags were recently moved, an observation made during a visit to the site. Young said the utility was unaware the markings had been removed.

“We mark the area for a specific reason,” she said. “As long as the work is done away from the flags, it’s completely safe. But if the flags have been moved, we will have to remark them.”

The driveway plan was approved by the DOB on March 31, much to the surprise of residents. Ogunkya and others neighbors note that the development company’s second highest official, Bernard Lake, is a former DOB employee. The owner, David Manesh, was convicted of rigging a public real estate auction in 1998, according to Federal Court records. He also was convicted of tax fraud that same year.

Lake and Manesh insisted nothing is amiss with the driveway plan.

“The fact that I was a DOB employee is irrelevant,” Lake said. “No one at that agency is going to risk their job to do us any favors.”

Manesh added, “Everything is above the board here. That guy [Ogunkya] just wants to cause problems for us.”

The decision to build the driveway over gas lines is the latest in a string of incidents that have spurred community anger against Melody, a subsidiary of Land Holding Inc.

When the building was constructed in 2008, Melody removed Ogunkya’s fence from the side of his home without his permission or any explanation, he said. Manesh said his workers needed the space to lay the framework for the building. The back of the building comes within inches of the property line.

After Ogunkya complained to the DOB, a stop work order was issued to the company for building without an adequate fence between the site and the adjacent property, records show. Within days, the order was rescinded and work was allowed to continue, even though the fence was never replaced.

As work on the building continued through 2009, Ogunkya’s car and driveway were damaged by falling mortar and cinder blocks, according to him and a DOB inspection report. Ogunkya showed a reporter video footage in which wood and mortar could be seen falling from the construction site.

Another stop work order was issued, only to be rescinded a few days later after a second inspection found no damage, according to “pictures and other evidence” collected by another DOB inspector. Ogunkya said he asked DOB for those pictures, but his request was refused. Representatives from the DOB declined to comment on the situation.

Some of Ogunkya’s neighbors said they share his concerns.

“They are trying to downplay how dangerous this is,” said Mary Lilley, a longtime resident of the block. “We had to evacuate our homes one time just because someone thought they smelled gas. It’s a very sensitive area.”

Melody currently has one open violation for failure to provide approved plans for a routine inspection, according to the DOB’s web site. The violation has been open since January and the web site says that no work is to be done until the matter is resolved. Still, residents say they frequently see workers at the site.

“I don’t understand how they are allowed to continue doing work if they have an open violation,” Ogunkya said. “They recently had a backhoe parked right on top of the gas lines, which are only four feet underground. That doesn’t seem very safe.”