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'It creates a dead spot': City, residents grapple with problems from long-vacant houses

Jimmy DeButts
Contact Reporterjdebutts@capgaznews.com
Does downtown Annapolis have a problem with vacant buildings?

Editor's note: This story is a follow-up to The Capital's June "Visions of Annapolis" series.

Behind the overgrown vegetation out front and under the coat of ivy in back, there is a house.

Neighbors say 88 Conduit St. is an eyesore and a threat to public safety. The long-vacant property's windows are boarded up. Raccoons took up residence in 2014. Vultures moved in this spring.

Brad Jones has lived next to 88 Conduit since 2012. The property was vacant and deteriorating then, he said. Now, it reminds him of the Robin Williams movie in which a board game comes alive, vines suddenly spread over houses, and rhinos, bats and a lion terrorize a New Hampshire town.

"It looks like someone is losing a game of 'Jumanji,'" Jones said.

While 88 Conduit St. is an extreme example of the problems associated with long-term vacancies in the city's Historic District, it is only one of as many as 50 city properties that fit the definition of a vacant property, according to data included in a 2015 bill sponsored by state Sen. John Astle, D-Annapolis.

Long-vacant homes depress the value of neighboring properties and hurt the city's character, local officials said.

But some city residents contend that complying with the renovation regulations enforced by Annapolis' Historic Preservation Commission is costly and the property maintenance code is inadequate.

Alderman Joe Budge, D-Ward 1, is working on legislation to give the city more enforcement options. Under current law, Budge said, there isn't much the city can do — unless a structure is literally falling down.

Annapolis can cite and fine property owners for failing to live up to the International Maintenance Code. The only other option available to city enforcement staff is condemnation by demolition.

Budge said he wants to empower the city to do more — such as place dilapidated properties in receivership — to get owners to take action before their structures fall into disrepair.

Right now, "there's nothing the city can do to incentivize cleanup," Budge said. "It creates a dead spot in the neighborhood. It degrades property values and makes the area around them seem as seedy as they are."

While homeowners like Jones welcome attempts to update the Annapolis code, they are frustrated about how long properties can sit crumbling without city action.

Attempts to reach 88 Conduit St.'s owners — Joel and Cynthia Brandon of Williamsburg, Virginia — were unsuccessful. The Brandons are listed as owners of the three-story home on state and city websites.

Annapolis' site shows the owners didn't respond to maintenance citations. They've been cited 21 times for violations since 2009 and have accumulated $3,000 in unpaid fines, according to the city's website.

A notice of foreclosure action rests on 88 Conduit's front steps. Foreclosure documents were filed on July 9, according to online court records.

The bank holding the mortgage might sell the property. But Jones worries a fire might break out next door or more trees will fall and further damage his property.

In 88 Conduit's overgrown backyard, fallen trees lean on healthy ones, temporarily held in place by strands of ivy that act like rope. One fallen tree uprooted part of Jones' brick walkway and forced him to replace portions of his fence.

Jones said the city rejected his offer to pay for tree removal.

"We can't get the city to do anything about it," Jones said. "It's a little bit sad to see the house go to waste. It's not pretty to look at."

Historic vacancy

Rosemary Marcuss has similar feelings about the city's oversight of vacant property. Her home at 97 East St. is next to a house she says has been vacant for about a dozen years.

Several years ago, a water main broke at 99 East St. The rupture wasn't noticed until water breached Marcuss' foundation and caused more than $10,000 in damage, she said.

The city says 99 East St. is not in violation of the city code. In front, the home's brick facade is intact. The paint on its bluish-green shutters is free from chips or peeling. It has a new metal roof.

Marcuss isn't happy about the view from her backyard, however. Ivy — now brown and dead — has crept up the building and infiltrated two open second-story windows.

"It is really bad to live next to a house like that," Marcuss said.

Marcuss says she bears the owner of 99 East. St. — listed as California resident Dee Levister — no ill will. She sympathizes with Levister, who inherited the historically significant property after a relative died.

James Holliday, a "free person of color," purchased 97, 99 and 101 East St. in the 1850s, according to the city's African-American Heritage Web page.

The city says 99 East St. is still owned by a Holliday descendant. In 2012, dishes and a revolver were among items discovered during a University of Maryland excavation at the property.

Marcuss said 99 East's history should be protected and celebrated. But as a vacant house, she said, it's a firetrap and a threat to her property.

"It's a danger," Marcuss said.

Calls to Levister were not returned.

Maria Broadbent, Annapolis' director of neighborhood and environmental programs, said 99 East St. has the proper permits and the family has made improvements to the exterior.

Broadbent said her staff can cite properties for maintenance violations when they have peeling paint, overgrown vegetation or broken windows.

But city workers cannot go onto private property without permission, she said.

If neighbors have concerns, Broadbent said, they can show city staff from their own properties. She said city enforcement staff walks through neighborhoods to identify homes that may be violating maintenance codes.

At present, vacant properties don't have to be registered with the city. Astle's bill would have required owners to register within 30 days of a property becoming vacant. It would also have allowed municipalities to set up a special property tax rate for vacant and blighted buildings.

Astle pulled his legislation in the spring, after Annapolis determined it already had the authority to pass such regulations.

Broadbent said property owners, after being cited, are given a few weeks to correct maintenance violations. If those issues aren't corrected by the reinspection date, fines are issued and another date to fix the problems is assigned.

"Every step of this process, the owner has a chance to straighten it out," Broadbent said.

The city imposes a fine of $200 per maintenance issue.

Broadbent said many of the properties where issues arise are vacant because of the death of a parent. This can lead to uncertainty about who owns the property and is responsible for upkeep.

Broadbent urges residents to spell out home inheritance in wills.

Some complaints the city gets about properties in the Historic District wouldn't be made anywhere but there, Broadbent said.

"People downtown have a lower tolerance than anywhere else in the city."

The apartment building

Not all the fights involve out-of-town owners. One has boiled up about 8 Maryland Ave., a 115-year-old three-story brick building just outside the Naval Academy's Gate 3.

Owner Ronald Hollander received a 180-day construction permit extension on July 28 to complete renovation of the apartment building. The property has been vacant since a 2004 fire left it uninhabitable.

During a July 23 meeting, several downtown residents urged the city Historic Preservation Commission to condemn the property or take it by eminent domain.

They claimed that in the six years since the post-recession renovation efforts began, Hollander hasn't made the progress he promised.

Carl Larkin, a downtown resident and member of the Ward 1 Residents Association board, questioned Hollander's ability to finish renovations. He said there was lack of transparency and cooperation with the HPC.

"That scope of work shouldn't take six years, it shouldn't take three," Larkin said at the HPC meeting.

In a previous meeting, the HPC requested a work schedule and budgetary information for the project.

Hollander's attorney wrote on July 23 that his client would not provide that information, because it wasn't in his best interest and the information would be "misused by those who want to there to be more suffering."

Attorney Jonathan Hodgson said the owner has ample workers on site and interior work is progressing, with drywall ready to be installed. Plumbing and electrical work have been completed.

Hodgson said Hollander's timetable for work on the building really began in March 2013, after the HPC approved his choice of windows.

While residents are upset over the building remaining vacant for more than a decade, the permit extension will allow Hollander to do what everyone wants — "that's completion of the project," Hodgson said.

He said if Hollander were to seek more time, enough work would be done on the property to warrant another extension.

Annapolis Realtor Richard Curtis said the vacant apartment building is hurting his business.

Curtis said his firm has had property on that block that is not selling and has been reduced in price because of the uncertainty over the multiyear reconstruction project.

Meanwhile, downtown resident Larry Claussen doubts 8 Maryland Ave. will be renovated in the time provided. At the July 23 HPC meeting, Claussen said Hollander has not shown good faith in working with the city.

The vacant property, he said, is hurting property values and degrading the Historic District's quality of life.

"The property is a disgrace to the community," Claussen said.

Costly renovation

The city's maintenance regulations are separate from its historic preservation rules. Complying with those stringent preservation guidelines can be expensive, downtown residents said.

For example, Jones said, using the materials the HPC mandates — such as wood pillars — is often more than twice as expensive as utilizing newer, more durable materials.

He said that in Annapolis it costs more to fix property to meet preservation standards than it does in other historic cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Newport, Rhode Island. Those cities, Jones said, allow less expensive materials to be used if a difference isn't noticeable.

Annapolis' refusal to do so, he said, is "a big barrier."

To aid property owners, the city promotes restoration tax credits. Lisa Craig, the city's chief of historic preservation, said residential property owners can apply for a 10 percent property tax credit for restoration work. Commercial property owners can apply for a 25 percent credit.

Craig said the city wants to partner with owners of vacant properties to prevent them from falling into disrepair.

In the coming months, she said, the HPC will update its code and establish a record of maintenance on neglected properties. It will note such things as peeling paint, broken windows, crumbling foundations and collapsing porches.

"Our responsibility is to make sure the exterior is not impacting the values of homes around them," Craig said.

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