Acrimony billows from smoldering stumps


On paper, it seemed like a good idea.

James F. Jett, a registered forester and experienced farmer, would plant Christmas trees on 220 acres of rolling woodlands he owned along the 8700 block of Dogwood Road in western Baltimore County.

Contractors clearing land for developers would pay him to dump tree stumps in his four-acre ravine. Mr. Jett would grind the stumps intochips and spread them at his three other farms in Pennsylvania, while cutting debris from his tree farm into marketable firewood.

But the "wood processing mill" Mr. Jett incorporated almost 10 years ago has turned into a nightmare for the people in the Granite area, bringing unwanted truck traffic and a month-old stump fire that has engulfed this small community in smoke.

Neighbors say their problems didn't start with the fire discovered Feb. 2 in Mr. Jett's enormous mountain of stumps, which is expected to take at least a few months and possibly a year to burn out.

The dispute dates to March 1982, when a deputy zoning commissioner ordered Mr. Jett to stop selling firewood because he violated zoning codes for residential areas by selling wood that was not cut on his property.

The order was later amended so he could sell only firewood grown on land he owned or leased. The tree farm has been the focus of intense legal battles ever since, including a case in which Mr. Jett was fined after an opponent charged him with assault.

At least two sets of files -- each 6 inches thick -- in county zoning and environmental offices show a history of citations, court hearings, photographs and letters of complaints from neighbors and elected officials.

Neighbors are baffled as to why, even after the fire, Mr. Jett's business remains open.

"The whole community's just been dumbfounded that he's been allowed to continue for so long," said Rosalyn Roddy, another opponent.

Michael P. Tanczyn, Mr. Jett's attorney, said the dump remained open because it was a legal operation. "You can't put a guy out of business just because you don't like what he does," he said.

But neighbors say the fire, which has cost $110,000 to contain, has at least put the spotlight on their battle.

"If nothing else, the wind since the fire has been blowing in the right direction, sending the smoke blowing east so people from all over the area can wonder along with us just what the heck has been going on here," said Thomas DeMay, president of the Patapsco Valley Community Association.

Neighbors say that if county officials were doing more to protect their interests, the stump dump would be closed by now.

County officials say that isn't true. The county has filed legal action against the dump at least three times since 1985. It lost twice, and in the third case won only a $2,000 fine from Mr. Jett because he was selling firewood not produced on the site.

The County Council also enacted legislation in October 1989 that required Mr. Jett and operators of similar dumps to obtain a permit and meet requirements designed to minimize their effects on the ground water and the environment.

Mr. Jett's permit application was under review when the fire was discovered and still is.

Neighbors also say they warned the county about the danger of fire long ago. One neighbor said he saw smoke coming from the site last summer, and county records show reports of smoke as far back as 1986. But officials attribute the sightings to steam rising from the decomposing wood stumps.

Despite all the setbacks, the people in the area are pressing on.

A meeting called by the 130-family Patapsco Valley Community Association, which was resurrected in 1985 to fight the stump dump, attracted more than 100 people last month, the largest in the group's history, Mr. DeMay said.

"No one wants to be seen as putting a tree farmer out of business," said Abraham Granek, who lives near the Jett farm. "But this man is operating a dump."

Residents have counted passing trucks, taken aerial photographs of the stumps and reluctantly staged demonstrations to fight for the dump's closing. A rally at the entrance to the farm last week attracted about 12 neighbors, and another is planned for tomorrow afternoon at the courthouse in Towson.

TTC "You think I like being out here, in front of the media? I hate this. But this is what we've been brought to," said Sandy Ludwig, one of the protesters, who carried a yellow sign that read, "How Can This Dumping Be Permitted?"

The community is searching for an attorney who will work free or at a rate it can afford to file legal action that would close the dump.

"We want a full-blown court hearing on the effects this operation has had on the community," said Kathleen Skullney, a mother of four and first-year law student who has fought to close Mr. Jett's stump dump for the past decade.

Chief among the problems lately has been smoke from the stump fire.

"Sometimes, it gets so you feel like you can hardly breathe," said Robert Meekins, 68, whose brick house is about a half-mile up Dogwood Road from Mr. Jett's farm.

While the smoke has spread as far as Essex and East Baltimore some days, state environmental officials say the air is safe. Nothing harmful was found in repeated tests of samples taken around the site.

Before the fire, neighbors were worried about truck traffic. Mr. Meekins said he had counted more than 100 trucks passing his house on Saturdays.

Mr. Tanczyn disputed that, saying the site received an average of about 12 trucks a day, although some days the number might be "in the high 70s."

Neighbors point to what happened Oct. 10, 1985, when a 10-wheel dump truck on its way to the site crashed into a house, seriously injuring the driver. The house was destroyed, its occupants have since moved away, and the site is now a vacant lot.

Tension reached a high point a year ago, when Mr. Jett's pickup truck hit the driver's side door of a minivan Ms. Skullney was driving along an access road near the property entrance.

Mr. Jett was given probation before judgment and fined $150 in District Court after Ms. Skullney charged him in a warrant with assaulting her, court records show.

Mr. Tanczyn said what happened in that incident was a matter of dispute, but he acknowledged that Mr. Jett had at times become fed up with accusations from neighbors.

"Anyone who hears neighbors constantly accuse him of polluting the streams and storing toxic waste, it just wears thin after a while," Mr. Tanczyn said.

He added, "This is like the Arabs and the Israelis, to a degree. As long as both sides continue on, there can be no peace."

History of a controversy

Oct. 20, 1981: James F. Jett incorporates as Patapsco Valley Farms Inc. to "engage in the business of a wood processing mill" with activities "to include but not be limited to the processing of firewood."

May 14, 1982: A deputy zoning commissioner from Baltimore County issues an order prohibiting Mr. Jett from selling firewood because he violated zoning codes for residential areas by selling wood that was not cut on his own property. The order is later revised allowing him to sell firewood only from trees on land he owned or leased.

Jan. 22, 1985: The county Environmental Services Bureau cites Mr. Jett for operating an unlicensed landfill. District Judge William S. Baldwin finds Mr. Jett not guilty of the violation, but tells county lawyers from the bench it would have been more appropriate if Mr. Jett had been cited with violating regulations regarding operation of an open dump.

March 1, 1986: County Circuit Judge A. Owen Hennegan rules in Mr. Jett's favor, saying he does not need a special exception to operate a sanitary landfill because the site is an agricultural use and there is no evidence he is disposing of garbage and other wastes, only stumps.

Sept. 7, 1988: Mr. Jett is given probation before judgment, sentenced to 12 months unsupervised probation and fined $2,000 for violating county zoning codes that prohibit the storage and selling of firewood that was not produced on his premises.

Oct. 2, 1989: County Council enacts legislation that would require Mr. Jett and operators of similar dumps to obtain a permit as recycling facilities and meet requirements designed to minimize their effects on the ground water and surrounding environment. Requirements include posting a bond to cover costs to clean up the sites if the owners default. Mr. Jett's permit application was under review when the fire was discovered.

Jan. 31, 1991: County fire officials issue a fire inspection report based on an October 1990 site inspection. The report details steps required of Mr. Jett to bring the site into compliance,

including reducing the size of the stump pile from 75 feet to 12 feet, paving the entrance road and parking lot and building a 30-foot wide access road around the perimeter of the stump pile.

Feb. 2, 1991: Fire is discovered at the stump dump.

Feb. 9, 1991: Baltimore County hires expert from Missouri to try to put out the blaze with a special fire-suppressing foam.

Feb. 20, 1991: Fire officials conclude that foam will not work and decide to let the fire burn itself out, which is expected to take at least a few months, possibly a year.

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