A Baltimore County judge refused yesterday to shut down the long-smoldering stump dump in western Baltimore County, but restricted the number of trucks allowed to dump at the site and ordered the owner to clean up a pile of fresh debris within 72 hours.
The ruling by Circuit Judge James T. Smith Jr. came after more than two days of testimony focusing on a county request to close James F. Jett's stump dump and tree farm in the 8700 block of Dogwood Road.
The dump has been smoldering since Feb. 2. County attorneys argued the operation is a major fire hazard.
The judge issued an order requiring Mr. Jett to close today only, to clean up a "football-field size" mound of stumps over the next three days and to limit his operation to 40 truckloads a day, or 350 truckloads a month, when he reopens.
Judge Smith said the county had failed to prove that closing the dump was necessary and to show that material on the site could not be ground up and removed within 72 hours.
"This is a matter of legal rights," Judge Smith told county attorneys. "The county has not presented enough evidence to support such a drastic measure as closing down the operation."
But he also directed Mr. Jett to clean up his act.
"Mr. Jett, you have got to start making inroads into that burned pile, both for the safety of yourself as well as for the community," Judge Smith said.
Mr. Jett declined comment after the ruling.
Attorneys for Mr. Jett and for the county -- and residents of the surrounding neighborhood who have been fighting the stump dump for years -- interpreted the order as at least a partial victory.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Thomas DeMay, president of the Greater Patapsco Community Association. "Unfortunately, we seem to be taking very small steps in this case."
Michael Tanczyn, Mr. Jett's attorney, said the stump dump has been accepting about 350 truckloads of debris for most of the recent months anyway, so the court order should not hinder the operation.
"We're very pleased," he said. "If he had shut us down, what would have happened? All the debris would have just been left to sit there."
County Attorney H. Emslie Parks said that the court order means Mr. Jett is bound to conditions similar to those county officials have tried to enforce since late February when he was permitted to resume accepting stumps.
"The court has placed some restrictions on what Mr. Jett can do," he said. "Those restrictions are what we've been after."
In February, the county let Mr. Jett accept new debris, even though the dump was still burning, because he agreed to accept no more than 20 truckloads a day and to process and haul it away within 72 hours, according to testimony by James McKinney, an aide to County Executive Roger B. Hayden.
Mr. Parks, who requested the court order to shut down the operation last week, said Mr. Jett had been taking in so much debris since then that it posed the risk of another major fire.
County attorneys presented evidence, including a vast collection of aerial photographs, intended to show that Mr. Jett had allowed new mountains of stumps to be built up.
"There exists a fire hazard because of the added material that threatens the health, welfare and safety of the citizens of Baltimore County," Mr. Parks said. "We now know what happens when [stump dumps] are not regulated. . . . It's a tinder box ready to burn."
But testimony also showed that Mr. Jett, a former Howard County firefighter, was cooperating with county fire officials.
Mr. Tanczyn, who had his own photographs, argued that there was no way to distinguish old from new stumps, nor to tell if material had been there more than 72 hours.
"He's done everything the Fire Department has asked him to do," he said.
The order requires Mr. Jett to maintain a 100-foot buffer between new stumps and the burning material and limits the height of new piles to 12 feet.
Neighbors expressed concern about who would assume responsibility for ensuring that Mr. Jett complies with the court order.