Run-down house ignites dispute in Balto. County Code inspectors who visited an uninhabited house in the Turners Station community of Baltimore County last fall reported that the floor was bare earth and the sky could be seen through holes in the roof. After months of issuing citations, the county government is ready to send in the wrecking ball.
But relatives of the woman who owns the house are fighting the government's plans to demolish it, saying the county illegally issued the citations and more than $90,000 in fines.
And yesterday, a county judge took the unusual step of visiting the house.
"She said she didn't trust the inspectors to be honest about it, so I decided to come here to see for myself," Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels said, referring to testimony from property owner Geraldine L. Parrish. "I wanted to bend over backward to give her the opportunity to show us the property was back up to code."
The dispute is taking place in the historically black neighborhood of Turners Station in Dundalk.
The one-story structure, no bigger than an old-time schoolhouse, was built in 1929. It has been in Parrish's late husband's family for decades, once housing a neighborhood grocery store and then a barber shop, said Rose M. Riddix, Parrish's sister-in-law.
She said the family hopes to refurbish the house and eventually turn it back into a grocery store.
Parrish is disabled, Riddix said, and family members have been fighting on her behalf to save the house.
Riddix says the county wants to seize the property and others so that it can redevelop the land.
"It's just as predatory as you can be," Riddix said. "It's actually stealing from the homeowner."
Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for the administration of James T. Smith Jr., said he could not comment on an ongoing legal dispute.
Dunbar Brooks, a Turners Station activist, said tighter code enforcement was a goal of a community plan created by residents several years ago.
"It's just a part of many of the older neighborhoods, whether it's blighted housing or vacant housing or abandoned autos," said Brooks. "We want to be able to keep young people and be able to create the kind of housing opportunities that will draw young families to the communities."
Posing a hazard
Standing among a group of people outside the house yesterday, Robyn Clark, a county code inspector, said the structure poses a safety hazard.
She said inspectors have responded to complaints about the house numerous times in the past several years and have cited a long list of violations, including overgrown weeds and a faulty gutter system. They have had several inoperable cars towed from the property.
In a visit to the house in fall 2005, Clark and another inspector saw the inside through an open door, she said.
"You could see the dirt" where the floor should have been, Clark said. "The entire structure of the floor had deteriorated away."
Clark said inspectors sent the owner a warning and then a citation but never received a response.
When inspectors went back to see if improvements had been made, two men told them to get off the property, Clark said.
The county has issued fines for the violations and charged Parrish for actions by the county to address some of the violations, such as having the cars towed away.
Riddix said she has been told that Parrish owes $90,000 on the property.
The county is attempting to foreclose on the property after a tax sale, an assistant county attorney said.
Riddix said the inspectors trespassed when they stepped on the property and looked inside the house. But an assistant county attorney said county law allows inspectors on private property.
Her husband, Jonathan Riddix, said the county would be setting a "dangerous precedent" by foreclosing on the house.
"Their pattern is to escalate minor violations into huge fines, call them taxes, and then take the property," Jonathan Riddix said.
Earlier this year, the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to allow the county to demolish the structure, according to court documents.
Parrish's family has asked Daniels to stop the demolition.
The judge, wearing a long overcoat, blue bow tie and a fur hat, visited the house yesterday afternoon to determine its condition.
But after receiving a letter from Parrish earlier in the week asking that he not step inside, Daniels waited outside the house for her to show up. She never did.
After about a half-hour, he left, just as Rose and Jonathan Riddix accused two code inspectors standing in the group of trying to steal property from black people.
"That being the case, we're leaving," Daniels said as he got into the passenger seat of a dark sedan. "We're not going to see anyone take that kind of abuse."
As Rose Riddix walked back in her house, a woman walking by who had seen the gathering asked her, "Y'all selling the house or something?"
"No," Riddix said, adding that the family intends to keep it.
The trial is to resume March 26.