After a court hearing this week, Baltimore County officials had to eat their earlier, defiant words and pay a $43,542 firefighting bill for James Jett, owner of the Granite stump dump that burned for nearly two years.
A check made out to contractor Potts and Callahan for earthmoving equipment Mr. Jett rented in the early days of the stubborn fire that erupted Feb. 2, 1991 was to be issued today, according to county Budget Director Fred Homan.
"We're happy they're paying it," Michael P. Tanczyn, Mr. Jett's attorney said yesterday of the debt dispute. "It's almost done, presuming the check clears," he added.
Roz Roddy, president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association, said she understands that under the law the county must pay for controlling the stump dump fire. She added, however, that "as a citizen, I'm offended and appalled that my tax money is being poured into that operation."
Those comments, and a rare one by Mr. Jett yesterday, reveal the continuing bitterness on all sides of the stump dump controversy, which raged as a regulatory dispute for five years before the fire broke out, and still smolders in various legal forums.
"I will not be happy until I own [County Executive] Roger Hayden and [County Attorney] Lee Parks," Mr. Jett said to another of his attorneys yesterday in a county court hallway. He believes he has been persecuted by county officials and area residents who have opposed his business. Mr. Hayden once announced that the county would buy the site, but then never did -- a move that Mr. Jett has claimed badly hurt his business.
As recently as late March, Deputy County Attorney Stanley J. Schapiro said that the county would never pay the debt, despite Judge James T. Smith Jr.'s court order in March garnishing the county's bank accounts at First National Bank. "You can't sue and collect public money," he said then. Yesterday he said that the county "had to change its plan."
At a hearing late Monday, Judge Smith made it clear that the county must pay, since officials never appealed his earlier rulings that the county owed the money. Hayden administration officials agreed to issue the check from already-appropriated contingency funds in the county budget, rather than risk further court orders that would bring the matter before the County Council for public discussion as a new appropriation of funds.
For years, neighbors of the Dogwood Road stump dump have complained about heavy trucks moving along their rural roads. In late 1992, 17 of them sued Mr. Jett for $8.5 million, alleging that the fire had resulted in injuries and property damage. Baltimore County also sued Mr. Jett for $9 million in late 1992, claiming environmental damages and negligence. Mr. Jett has denied the allegations, saying that the fire was caused by local people who wanted to put him out of business.
The fire was finally buried under tons of earth in January. The site is being monitored for new outbreaks by the Maryland Environmental Service.
Mr. Jett's business involved charging fees to developers who trucked stumps to the Patapsco Valley Farms Inc. operation from their building sites. Mr. Jett then piled the stumps up to 100 feet high on about five acres of the land. He was slowly grinding them into mulch for sale when the fire erupted. The fire's cause was never determined.
After another, separate court hearing yesterday, Judge Smith said he is "leaning" toward exempting Nationwide Insurance Co. from liability in parts of the two civil suits filed against Mr. Jett. He did not rule on that matter yesterday, however. Nationwide insured Mr. Jett's business and equipment, but the insurer claims that it is exempt from liability for damages resulting from the fire because of exclusion clauses.