Rundown home prompts calls for housing code Neighbors charge site is eyesore

October 25, 1993|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

The rundown house in the 600 block of Hillen Road may be the most visible eyesore in Baltimore County.

The yard is overgrown with ivy and weeds. Paint peels from the sides of the house. A back window is boarded up. Two cars, ivy wrapping around the spokes of their wire-wheel hubcaps, sit idle in what once was the driveway.

The house, in Fellowship Forest, a neighborhood of $300,000 homes and well-tended lawns, has irritated homeowners and frustrated community leaders for 10 years.

They say their battles over the property show why the county needs a minimum-standard housing code that would apply to private homes.

Unlike neighboring Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County doesn't have a general housing code. Instead, the county has a hodgepodge of regulations.

There's a livability code for rental units, a building code for dwellings and an investment properties law to deal with the exterior of commercial and rental buildings. Enforcement is scattered through the Community Development and Permits and Licenses departments.

If a property owner stores junked cars or throws furniture in the yard, it's a zoning violation enforced by the Office of Zoning Administration and Development Management. If the place is overgrown with weeds and high grass, or there's garbage in the yard, the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management takes over.

No regulation or agency specifically deals with rundown houses that aren't safety hazards. The Hillen road home is a case in point. The house hasn't been occupied in almost 13 years, but its elderly owner, Catherine Connor Sands, still pays property taxes, and the license tags on the cars in the driveway are up to date.

The Planning Board, responding to community leaders around the county, has agreed to study the feasibility of a general housing code. Elected officials have reacted cautiously to the idea, fearing the cost and possible invasions of privacy.

Wayne R. Skinner, president of the Towson-Loch Raven Community Council, said he pushed for the study after failing to persuade county officials to act.

Mr. Skinner said that he sent County Executive Roger B. Hayden a letter in October 1991 asking for a study. Mr. Hayden replied that his administration would look into the matter and issue a report. But Mr. Hayden also cautioned that housing code enforcement would cost money at a time when his administration was cutting the budget.

Two years later, there is no indication that the Hayden administration studied or reported on the issue.

Mr. Skinner also wrote to his councilman, Douglas B. Riley, R-4th. Mr. Riley replied that while he was concerned that communities could not make homeowners keep up their properties, the possibility of "unwarranted intrusion by government into individual and property rights" bothered him.

Now Mr. Skinner hopes the planning board will deal with the issue.

"A housing code would help stabilize older neighborhoods and would give the county and community organizations a tool to do something about owner-occupied houses that become an eyesore," he said.

The house on Hillen Road is by no means the only example of the problem, community leaders say. It's simply one of the most visible.

Nancy Reigle, president of the Fellowship Forest Community Council, said Mrs. Sands has spurned many offers to buy the house, as well as offers from neighbors to help maintain the yard. Mrs. Reigle said she hears frequent complaints about the property.

Attempts to reach Mrs. Sands for comment were unsuccessful.

"Because it sits on a widely traveled street, people from many parts of the county know about it," Mrs. Reigle said.

Over the years, records show, Mrs. Sands has abandoned two other houses, one in Pikesville and one in Baltimore. City housing officials condemned the Baltimore home because of housing code violations.

"Without some kind of legislative remedy like a housing code, our hands are tied," said Mrs. Reigle. "It's been very frustrating for me dealing with this property, and it's frustrated past presidents of the association."

Mr. Riley said that he has no problems with the planning board study but cautioned that it would be difficult to draw up a housing code.

"Where do you draw the line?" he asked. "What happens to the elderly homeowner who wants to maintain the property but can't afford it? How far do we go in letting government tell us when we have to paint our house or fix the gutters and when we don't?"

Pikesville Councilman Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, said he could support minimum exterior housing code regulations "as long as they are carefully drawn and have the approval and input from the community."

Mr. Mintz tried to have the livability code applied to the exterior of private houses in 1990 but could not muster enough support from his colleagues.

Donna Cameron, president of the Maiden Choice Improvement Association, agrees that a housing code should not go too far. Maiden Choice is an older Arbutus neighborhood.

"We don't want this to set up the property police, but there needs to be some kind of minimum standard for property owners to maintain their homes," said Mrs. Cameron.

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