Gerry Luff's 11-year war with Salt Lake City is over.
No longer does he feel like he is selling a barber shop in a community of bald men or a like he is a cattle rancher in a world of vegetarians. Finally, he has been allowed to honorably rid himself of a family business - a place located on an ideal commercial lot in a neighborhood that wouldn't tolerate one.Luff inherited the family's car dealership from his father several years ago. This wasn't a dealership in the modern sense, with acre after acre of shiny new cars and pushy salesmen. Luff Motors was a tiny shop and gas station on the corner of 1700 South and 700 East. It never got much bigger than it was on Feb. 2, 1929, the day of its grand opening.
He inherited a small rental house to the north, as well. But keeping it all up soon got to be too much for Luff, who is confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. He started entertaining offers to sell the place in 1983, but that's when he learned that the family business was not a favorite among some of his neighbors.
Luff's father had started the dealership before city zoning laws. When the city passed those laws, they specified that Luff Motors was in a residential area. The dealership was allowed to continue under a variance because it already was there.
But when Luff wanted to sell, some members of the Sugar House Community Council, the advisory board for the neighborhood, felt this was their chance. They had passed a master plan that called for Luff Motors one day to be replaced with housing.
The trouble was, residential developers weren't exactly busting Luff's door down with offers. As Luff put it, "You might as well build apartments on the final straightaway at Bonneville Raceway." Actually, Bonneville would be much more quiet most of the time. It doesn't have 60,000 cars going by each day, as Luff Motors has along 700 East.
Instead, he had plenty of offers from companies that wanted to replace Luff Motors and the house with gas stations, car washes or tire stores.
But the community council and the city always stood in the way. They held firm to the notion that the lot should be residential. Luff eventually closed the place and stopped paying his annual business license fees. That meant his zoning variance expired.
As he explained it last week, "When you're in a wheelchair and trying to survive from day to day, are you going to worry about a little business license?"
Then there was the matter of the underground tanks. Luff once sold gasoline, and the tanks beneath the building had leaked. New laws came along requiring anyone buying the property to clean the leak, and no one knew how extensive a problem that would be.
Without a large enough income, Luff eventually stopped paying on the approximately $225,000 he owed in loans, interest and taxes on the property. But no one tried to foreclose or auction the place. No one wanted to unlock the secret of the leaking tanks. Offers to buy the property, once valued at $418,600, kept getting smaller until eventually they stopped coming.
Finally, the old building and the house stood vacant, year after year - boarded and left to rodents and vandals. It became a favorite place for young hoodlums to practice their spray-painting techniques and to perfect the art of starting fires.
"I keep thinking how it used to be," Luff said one day last year as I toured the place with him. "It really bums you out when you see how it's going."
But everything changed recently when Robert Boyd, the owner of a bicycle and skating shop called "Bike Board Blade," expressed interest in the property. By then, many of the neighborhood opponents recognized that a business on the corner would be preferable to an eyesore.
Boyd was able to buy the mortgage from the bank and give Luff a settlement that, although nowhere near the original offers on the place, didn't leave him penniless.
Boyd found the gas leak wasn't so bad, after all. A high water table already had washed most of the pollution away. And he agreed to buy the house to the north, fix it up and rent it out.
The city, in turn, agreed to grant a new zoning variance, and Bike Board Blade should be in business this fall.
It would seem to be a happy ending. But you can excuse Luff if he doesn't feel like celebrating.