YORK, Maine — Before the recent trial began in the Paras Pizza case brought by the town, York District Court Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz made clear that he was not happy that the two sides failed to settle ahead of time as he wanted them to do. And when the trial ended, he said he’d render a judgment by June 28 that everyone would have to abide by if he didn’t get an agreement before then.
In between, Moskowitz presided over a two-day trial involving charges arising from a 2017 lawsuit brought by the town against Ernest and Eleni Paras and son Spiro. Throughout, the low voice of a Greek interpreter translated the proceedings for Eleni Paras, as Ernest Paras was too ill to attend. And while she had an attorney, Spiro Paras represented himself, with his witness questioning often devolving into a series of objections by town attorney Dan Murphy that were nearly always sustained by Moskowitz.
Hanging over the entire trial was the specter of a settlement. According to Murphy and Eleni Paras’ attorney William Maselli, a 23-page settlement is on the table but details remain in dispute. Moskowitz delayed the start of the trial to give the two sides more time, and offered to stop the trial in the middle if further discussions would be fruitful.
He was particularly mindful of the fact that the Parases will face fines that could reach into the tens of thousands of dollars, as well as attorneys fees, if the town of York prevails.
“I have been orally urging you folks to negotiate” since last year, he said, “and I put it in writing last December.”
It has now been a decade since the Paras Pizza building at 16 Railroad Ave. in York Beach came under scrutiny by the town, and nine years since its tenants were required to vacate the building, which was shut down after the town issued a stop-work order.
Trial testimony indicated a town and a family at loggerheads: the town says Spiro Paras would get permits over the years, refuse to allow inspections as required, and then allow the permits to expire without work being completed. Code Enforcement Officer Amber Harrison said the town is willing to work with the family, but Spiro Paras has to show a good faith effort to work with them.
Paras says he was caught in a Catch-22, where the town would issue stop-work orders, which wouldn’t allow him to do the work he wanted to do.
“The town or affiliated entities made it difficult to finish the project. We couldn’t correct the violations because we couldn’t get permits,” Paras told the judge.
Perhaps the most telling testimony for the town came from York Beach Fire Chief David Bridges. He said the problems began in 2009, when he noticed planks of a wooden deck had been removed and an aluminum extension ladder was being used as a second means of egress for a number of living units at the rear of the building.
“We couldn’t have people living on the second floor with a ladder as a second means of egress,” he said.
During a 2015 inspection of the property, he said, he found the living units down to bare studs, which allows fires to move quickly because there is no Sheetrock to act as a barrier; a bearing wall removed, so that the living quarters above it was “starting to droop down”; no fire doors or fire walls installed; and no smoke detectors or fire suppression systems.
In response to a question from Spiro Paras, Bridges said, “The location of your building poses the greatest potential for a catastrophic event. There is no other building in York Beach that is as unsafe as yours. A fire could take out half of York Beach.”
The most telling testimony for the defense came from former York code enforcement officer Tim DeCoteau, who has been working with the Parases since the fall of 2017. DeCoteau first established that he had been York CEO for 24 years and that up until leaving his job in 2009, the Paras building had always passed annual inspections.
He points to the fact that in recent years, Harrison told Paras he had to first get a life safety permit from the state fire marshal’s office before the town would issue permits for substantive work — a statement that Harrison has also made to the Weekly over time. Currently, Harrison has issued permits for minor work such as repairing a roof and installing awnings on the building, but has not issued more substantive plumbing or building permits.
However, DeCoteau quoted from a legal issues manual produced by the Maine office that certifies CEOs. It states that “applicability of laws and rules under other jurisdictions (in this case the state fire marshal) can not be used to delay local action.”
Typically, he said, the fire marshal issues the life safety permit after all work has been done and just prior to issuance of an occupancy permit by the town.
DeCoteau said, based on his expert opinion, that the building currently “seems structurally stable to me.” Further, he said, he is working with Paras to ensure that the building is brought up to code.
Spiro Paras, in his comments to the judge, said the 10 years of limbo for the family business has been “devastating” financially.
“I remain convinced that the action of the town was perpetrated to close our business and force its sale. In 10 years, the actions of the town don’t really make a lot of sense otherwise. The only logical thread seems to be efforts to achieve maximum damage to our income,” he said.
Judge Moskowitz told Maselli and Murphy to have written closing arguments to him by June 21. Barring a settlement agreement, he’ll make his final ruling by June 28. But he made a last plea for a negotiated agreement.
“I have a feeling that difficult issues have arisen with both parties. But the parties have strong interests in resolving those issues rather than the court issue a judgment,” he said. “I understand that further effort is truly needed to reach agreement. I would suggest everyone take a very deep breath. Try to be respectful and understanding with each other. I know it’s hard because there have been disagreements over time, but I get the impression that everyone is capable of treating each other decently.
“I also want to say, it seems to me that the view in discussion ought to be toward practicality — solving the problems rather than getting into the mire. Perhaps things might be done in a sufficient manner, rather than above and beyond,” the judge continued. “I hope things go well from this point out.”