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Community leaders hope for right to sue over neighborhood nuisances


In the dumping grounds of Sandtown-Winchester, Richard Burton sees hope in the mounds of tires, old furniture and scrap metal that litter the vacant lots and alleys.

After many unsuccessful attempts to stop illegal dumping, Mr. Burton says a bill would give community groups such as his the right to sue to force a property owner to clean a vacant lot.

"This bill would give us leverage," he said yesterday of the community rights bill, which is scheduled for a hearing in the House of Delegates today.

Mr. Burton and other leaders in the West Baltimore neighborhood have tried unsuccessfully to stop illegal dumping. They say it is often hard to find the owners of vacant lots or to catch truck drivers dumping trash.

Sandtown-Winchester has an unusually large number of vacant lots, since renewal efforts there have resulted in the demolition of vacant rowhouses. Several lots were covered yesterday with debris, including discarded scrap metal that community leaders say junkies dump after being unable to sell it at a nearby scrap yard.

Leaders say they have had only modest success in getting city sanitation inspectors to intervene or by taking a truck's license plate number and sending owners letters asking them to stop the dumping.

Community groups have little standing to sue over a neighborhood nuisance unless the group owns property adjacent to the lot.

And activists say the city's enforcement of housing and sanitation codes is often slow.

"It happens all the time that people have to resort to a city administration that is overworked and underfunded. This bill would enable [communities] to take direct action," said Anne Blumenberg, executive director of the Community Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to about 60 communities.

She noted that the bill, if passed into law, would allow neighborhood leaders to tackle any number of nuisances, ranging from trash-strewn lots to noisy bars. The city already has a law enabling communities to sue owners of vacant buildings used for drug dealing.

This is Ms. Blumenberg's fourth attempt to get the community rights bill passed. She said she hopes the bill will have a better chance of surviving this year because it would give the right to sue only within Baltimore City. Previous bills were statewide.

The sponsor of the bill is Del. Gerald J. Curran, with support from the other 21 city delegates.

But the bill faces opposition from the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.

D. Robert Enten, the group's lobbyist, said he will testify against the bill today because his organization -- made up of city landlords -- believes "local housing code enforcement should be left to the elected officials in the city of Baltimore."

"What this bill does is turns local code enforcement over to community associations who are not answerable to anyone," he said.

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