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Housing law to go into effect tomorrow in Baltimore County Owner-occupied homes can be cited for violations


Jack Bowen says people sometimes drive through his Middle River neighborhood just to see the ramshackle house that stands out like a sore thumb.

"It's known all over the area," says Bowen, a 50-year resident of Aero Acres. "It's pretty bad." The interior is crowded floor-to-ceiling with items the owner has collected from the streets, he says.

But starting tomorrow, Baltimore County officials will have a new tool to use against homes that are neighborhood eyesores but are owner-occupied and exempt from the housing code.

In May, the County Council approved a law covering the exterior of such homes to take effect Jan. 1.

Although the law is limited and penalties for violating it are civil, the change represents a big step for the county, which had no housing code until 1988, when a rental-only code was enacted under a state mandate. Landlords who violate the rental housing code are subject to criminal prosecution.

County officials "are a little skittish about this [housing code] stuff," says Wayne Skinner, a planning board member and Loch Raven-area activist who has pushed for the law for years.

Officials have been reluctant to intrude on a homeowner's property rights. But with urbanization and growing concern about blight in older neighborhoods, attitudes are slowly changing.

Arnold Jablon, director of permits and development management, is training the first six of 14 new inspectors who will enforce the law -- up to a point.

"What's an eyesore?" Jablon says. "If it's a matter of aesthetics [only], I won't get into it."

Councilmen have made clear that the law should not be used as a weapon in disputes between neighbors or for minor problems, such as discolored siding.

"I'm not going to get into any Hatfields and McCoys," Jablon says.

To be cited, a home must have a problem that qualifies as a danger to community health, safety or welfare, says Jablon and Council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat. One example: A dangling rainspout that could fall and hit someone.

"It's to deal with extreme cases," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat.

One such case is the Aero Acres house in his district.

The county took the owner of the house to court last year after junk accumulated in the yard, and sanitarians cited it for health code violations. Now county-hired crews periodically clean the yard and tack the cost onto the owner's property tax bill, but Bowen says that hasn't changed the house's appearance or its impact on the community.

"Last time I was reassessed I went over and appealed," and won a reduction because of the rundown house on his block, Bowen says. Still, at 76, he wonders how much less his home would be worth if he had to sell and move.

Jablon, who expects about 5,000 complaints the first year, says inspectors will check each one to see if violations exist.

The county first will try to get compliance by persuasion, or by offering help. For example, if elderly homeowners can't afford repairs, they will be referred to the county's Housing Opportunities Program for low-interest loans.

If an owner refuses to make repairs after 30 days, the county will issue a civil citation carrying a fine of up to $200 a day, and an administrative hearing will be set.

If a hearing officer finds the owner at fault and repairs still aren't made, Jablon says he will seek a Circuit Court injunction. The final step could include the county contracting for repairs, and placing a lien on the property.

Pub Date: 12/31/96

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