In the first legal challenge of a city plan to tear down 24,000 abandoned houses, the owner of a dilapidated former nursing home that was torn down last year by the Baltimore housing department is suing the city for $2.2 million in damages.
Mitchell Gould, who operated a 57-bed home for the elderly in West Baltimore until he retired to Florida a few years ago, charges that city officials failed to notify him before reducing his vacant turn-of-the-century building to rubble in March 1997.
The demolition, he contends, represents an unconstitutional "taking" of his property by a public agency for which taxpayers should now reimburse him.
If a federal judge rules in his favor, the case could bring a flood of liability actions against the Department of Housing and Community Development, which has torn down hundreds of buildings in recent years under similar circumstances.
To defeat his claim, legal experts say, city officials must prove that Gould's building was in such dangerous condition that they had no choice but to demolish it without telling him.
In an ironic twist, housing officials acknowledged this week that they gave $162,000 to a nonprofit church group in 1994 to study the feasibility of renovating the property at 3313 Poplar St. -- only to change course and knock it down when it was found to be beyond repair.
"The property was heavily vandalized and in very poor condition," said the Rev. Henry B. Hunt, who oversaw the study for the Church of God in Christ in Randallstown. "It would easily have cost a couple million dollars to put it back into any kind of reasonable condition."
At the time, Gould had completed negotiations to sell the nursing home near Gwynns Falls Park to the church for use by its elderly members. Included in the deal were 159 old bed frames, 77 mattresses, 25 wheelchairs, 75 soup bowls and a toaster.
Records show Gould retained an ownership interest until the church paid him the agreed-upon sale price of $1.1 million -- an amount that Hunt and housing officials now say was grossly out of line with the building's worth.
In debt to the city for some $85,000 in back taxes on the property, Gould had offered to give it to the housing department a year earlier, said Zack Germroth, the agency's spokesman.
The building began as a manufacturing facility sometime in the late 1800s, records show, and was used as a nursing home through most of this century by a succession of operators.
By 1993, it had degraded into a debris-strewn and water-damaged shell, etched with graffiti, scarred by cracks and pocked with gaping holes where bricks had fallen out. Spurred by neighborhood complaints, city inspectors visited the site that year and declared that the structure was on the verge of toppling.
"When the church became interested in the building, we had every notion -- based on our earlier discussions with Mr. Gould -- that he would charge them a nominal fee to take it off his hands," said Germroth. "That's when we gave the church a planning grant and pledged our support for a renovation project.
"But when we saw the final sale price, more than $1 million, that changed everything. There was no way we could go forward under those kind of circumstances. And that facility wasn't going to last much longer otherwise." Thus, Germroth said, the housing department notified the church by mail that the city was going to demolish the nursing home. But housing officials apparently made little effort to contact Gould to give him a chance to repair the building or find another buyer when the church backed out of the deal.
"We went down to take a look at the property about a year later to figure out what to do with it," said Jay F. Cohen, Gould's attorney. "But there was nothing left to look at. The building was gone, demolished. We just stood there with our mouths open."
The case underscores a long-standing problem faced by the Department of Housing and Community Development in disposing of the city's crumbling stock of worn-out buildings.
An estimated 40,000 vacant dwellings exist citywide -- which would make a wall of rowhouses more than 90 miles long. But the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that it is unconstitutional for government agencies to take action against private property without notifying owners.
In Baltimore and other cities, locating the owners of dilapidated buildings is often a daunting task. Many are dead. Others are in prison or living out-of-state. Still more operate their substandard houses as rental units through corporate shells and post office boxes that make it extremely difficult for city inspectors to learn their identities or locate them.
A recent computer survey of tax records by The Sun revealed, for example, that more than 120 of these post-office box operations exist in the city. And they control at least 2,338 properties, many of them in substandard condition.
City lawyers and inspectors now routinely mail demolition notices directly to the address they intend to demolish, even if the building has been vacant for years, and staple the final notice to the door or window frame.
"That's simply illegal," said Sherri G. Sirotkin, who filed Gould's lawsuit. "The courts have consistently held that the mere posting of a notice is not sufficient to take someone's property."
Added Cohen: "A lot of people who are having their properties knocked down right now probably don't even know their buildings are gone yet. Or they simply don't give a damn. But that doesn't relieve the city of its responsibility to track the owners down and notify them personally.
"God help the taxpayers if those people start suing, because the city won't have a leg to stand on."
Michael J. Doxzen, the assistant city solicitor defending the city, declined to comment on Gould's lawsuit, saying "We don't know enough about the particulars of the case to say anything at this point."
Several property law experts said the city has virtually unlimited authority to demolish any building that is deemed hazardous to the public. And its duty to notify owners is limited under such circumstances.
"As long as the city can demonstrate that it made a good faith effort to notify the owner of record, its police powers in a case like this are fairly broad," said Garrett Power, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School. "Its authority to address a clear and immediate danger to public safety is pre-eminent over any private property right I can think of."
Pub Date: 12/03/98