Mowing slow-going at abandoned home

The grass grew to nearly 4 feet in the back yard

Debbie Smalley thought she finally had a lead on how to get the nearly 4-foot-tall grass cut at the abandoned home next door, when a sign was posted on the house last month advising people to call Bank of America with any questions.

Smalley called. She said she talked with two representatives, neither of whom could find any record that the bank was responsible for the property, on Canaris Drive in Lynn Township.

That's because it isn't. PNC Bank holds the mortgages, according to Lehigh County records.

Then why is Bank of America's name and contact information listed? A bank spokeswoman told me she suspects that was a mistake. She said the companies that inspect vacant properties and post notices often work for multiple banks, and someone probably slapped the wrong notice on the door.

That shows just how hard it is to weed through the mess that's left behind when a home is abandoned and no one wants to take care of.

Lynn Township went down the same wrong road when it was trying to enforce its weed ordinance against the property, township Manager Kevin Deppe told me.

He said he'd been trying since April to find the responsible person or bank, so the township could send a letter demanding that the yard be maintained and follow up with a fine if necessary.

"We're working on it but this is not an easy task," Deppe said.

When homes are abandoned, they can sit in limbo for a time until they are officially taken over by the bank that holds the mortgage. Many times, no one takes responsibility for the property during that time.

PNC told me it didn't assume control of the property until recently, and just got bids to secure and winterize the home and cut the grass in June.

"It was still in the hands of and the responsibility of the borrower into May," spokesman Fred Solomon said.

The previous owner, James Ketner, told me the property hasn't been his responsibility for about a year. He said it was turned over during a bankruptcy proceeding. He said he has been in contact with Lynn Township about the situation.

Smalley told me the Ketners moved out last summer. She said her husband cut the yard once, then the grass in the back yard grew the rest of last summer and this spring. The front yard wasn't as bad, as another neighbor had been cutting it.

Smalley said her husband had called the township last fall, and again this spring, asking that something be done. Deppe told me he doesn't recall being contacted last year, and apologized for the delay in resolving this. But he said the township isn't ignoring the problem.

"Unfortunately, it's how these things work," Deppe told me, noting this is a broad problem in this economy, and one the township has had to deal with before and probably will have to deal with again.

He said after the Ketners told him they don't own the home anymore, they directed him to PNC Bank, which told him in late May it would look into it.

That took several more weeks. The yard finally was cut, sort of, on June 21, the same day I went to take a look.

"Now it looks clumpy, like a bad haircut instead of a field like before," Smalley said.

On Tuesday, the yard looked much better than the first time I visited, but I still wouldn't want to live next door. While the high grass has been cut, the lawn now is covered with dead grass. And while the overturned trash can has been picked up, the spilled contents remained in the yard, along with other trash.

She wasn't just worried about the jungle next door ruining the spectacular views she has from her elevated country home. Her 4-year-old son recently was diagnosed with Lyme disease, from a tick.

"I can't claim that he got it from the yard next door, but I also can't say that he didn't because of it's current condition," she told me.

Smalley believes the township should have done more, and I agree. Governments are supposed to protect public health, but they're not quick as a tick to jump on problems like this.

I wrote last year about an overgrown yard in South Whitehall Township, and how neighbors there repeatedly had asked the township to do something. The township cut the grass after I asked about it, and said it would put a lien on the property for the cost.

With PNC Bank apparently now at least attempting to maintain this property, Lynn Township's intervention hopefully won't be necessary. But during the many months the yard was being ignored, it would have been nice if the township had cut it.

Deppe said the township does protect public health, by sending violation notices to offending property owners. He said it can't trespass and cut the grass.

"I apologize, but I can't go out there with township equipment on private property," Deppe said. "If we would enter private property and something would happen the township would be liable."

Other governments do, or they pay a contractor to do it.

If you're stuck near an abandoned home, contact your local government and ask it to take action against the property owner or responsible bank. If necessary, contact the bank yourself. You can find which bank holds the mortgage by checking with the Lehigh County Recorder of Deeds.

The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me by email at watchdog@mcall.com, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. Follow me on Twitter at mcwatchdog and on Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.
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