Car-busters Keep Neighborhood Clear Of Junk Vehicles Brooklyn Park Residents Patrol Streets

November 05, 1990|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, just the sort of warm, breezy morning to prowl the alleys for that increasingly elusive prey.

Three elderly men, dressed for the hunt in work pants, plaid shirts and lightweight jackets, peer around a trash can behind 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn Park.

Look! Over there, at the end of the alley, right next to the white garage. Something metallic glints in the sunlight.

The car-busters move in for the kill.

With professional caution, the white-haired men quietly surround the old Chevrolet. But they've struck out this time. The car has a Maryland license plate with an up-to-date sticker.

They've reached the end of the trail. There's no sign of any abandoned cars littering the alleys or yards of Brooklyn Park today.

James "Jim" Sunstrom, 71, shrugs his shoulders. "That's the result of the work we're doing, I guess," he says with a smile.

"The word's got around," 77-year-old Francis Ward chimes in. "People know we're out here."

Sunstrom, Ward and their buddy Robert "Bob" Jump, 74, used to cheer each other on in softball and soccer. Now, they're part of a different kind of team. Together with Mike Davis, who is only about half their age, they form the watchdog team to keep Brooklyn Park clean.

At least once a month, the four men stalk the streets and alleys in search of abandoned cars, scrap automotive parts and other illegal rubbish.

They divide the neighborhood, with each man keeping track of four streets. When they spot a junked car, they write down the address, fill out a form and send it to the county's Zoning Enforcement Office.

"We don't want to put anybody in jail," says Sunstrom, a retired maintenance supervisor for Olin Corp., a Curtis Bay sulfuric acid manufacturer. "We just want to keep this a decent place to live."

The car-busters boast of a startling success rate. They succeeded in removing 25 abandoned cars in the last year by notifying the Zoning Enforcement Office.

"That's a rental house," Ward says as he walks by a large, old-fashioned home off Chatham Road. "They used to have junk cars and oil all over the lawn. They broke them (cars) down, you know, for the batteries and radiators and stuff. But we sent in a notice."

When the county's Department of Planning and Zoning receives a complaint, an officer drives to the site to check if the violation is legitimate, says Richard Gauch, supervisor of the enforcement office.

If an abandoned car is blocking a public street, the police are called.

They usually issue tickets, but tow the car after 48 hours.

The enforcement office steps in if a car is junked in a private alley or back yard. "We can go after it if it doesn't have a registration, or it's inoperable," Gauch says.

Property owners get at least 15 days to move the car before the enforcement office issues a citation, he says. Tickets start at $50 and can be increased to $300 if the owner fails to take action.

Gauch calls tickets "the last resort" and says the office tries to avoid litigation.

Brooklyn Park's clean team only sends in a tiny portion of the complaint forms received each week by the enforcement office. Between 200 and 300 residents in the county call to complain or send in forms each week about possible zoning violations, Gauch says.

The vast majority are about abandoned cars, he says. Civic groups such as the Brooklyn Park Improvement Association file many complaints, but irate neighbors also pick up the phone to sound off about junked cars.

"Many complaints are due to neighbor squabbles," Gauch says. "Most are legitimate, though, because people go to the trouble of calling or getting the forms."

Jump and the other car busters, who represent the civic group's zoning squad, boast they rarely raise the hackles of neighbors.

"We don't get much static," Ward says.

The only drawback is that their vigilance is putting them out of business. Abandoned cars are becoming an endangered species in the tree-lined streets and alleys from 1st through 17th avenues.

"Things are going so good, there aren't many cars left," Sunstrom says.

"If it keeps up, I'll just be walking for fun."

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