Cornices, signs, doors draw fines in Fells Point

Encroachment: City inspectors enforce a little-used law on building attachments. It's off the wall, some owners complain.

January 26, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Amy Oakes | Gerard Shields and Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

For 17 years, Thomas Cooper has been caring for his historic tavern in Fells Point, helping create the renaissance of this once-seedy swath of Baltimore. Along the way, he's seen his taxes become six times as high and complains that each year he loses business to the city's annual beer festival.

But when Cooper recently got a letter from the city fining him $750 for the sign, lights, pay phone and cellar door attached to Leadbetter's at 1639 Thames St., the 55-year-old former Florida resident began looking for the white flag of surrender.

Cooper is one of dozens of Fells Point property owners furious over the recent resurrection of a little-enforced city law charging them with "encroaching on the public right of way," which includes anything jutting from the building over the sidewalk, including cornices, lights, cellar doors and awnings.

"The cellar door was there before Baltimore was a city," said Cooper.

City Public Works officials say they recently began enforcing the long-dormant 1935 law requiring property owners to get a minor privilege permit for the building attachments. According to the city charter, the sidewalk is public and anything hovering over it is governed by the city.

The law has not been enforced for at least two decades. The city's Department of Housing and Community Development had responsibility for the law, but it lacked inspectors. About three years ago, the city Department of Public Works took over the responsibility, and it recently hired two inspectors to begin enforcement by issuing citations in Fells Point.

Public Works Director George G. Balog does not see enforcing the law as a matter of choice and says he is complying with the city law.

"They're enjoying the public right of way that belongs to everybody, and some people have enjoyed this without paying [for] it," Balog said.

But Fells Point business owners call the enforcement the latest absurdity by a city trying to attract and nurture viable businesses while being unable to resolve problems reported by city departments -- 300-plus murders a year, 59,000 residents hooked on drugs and 22,000 families waiting for decent housing.

Dozens of citations

Dozens of Fells Point businesses have received notifications from the city in the first few weeks of January.

Failure to pay the fines and obtain annual permits could result in the removal of the encroachments and a lien against the property, city law says.

"Really, it's ludicrous," said Catherine Crymes, owner of Great Bears Toys, which was fined $420 for a cornice, store front and double-faced sign on her Thames Street building.

Although Fells Point is the first city neighborhood confronting the new law, the rest of the city will face similar action, Balog said. Romaine Somerville, director of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point, said many of the city's historic buildings have cornices and similar street overhangs, such as awnings.

Surroundings define area

By enforcing the law, Somerville said, the city may push property owners to remove the attachments and chase away the flavor of neighborhoods such as Fells Point.

"They don't want to destroy what attracts the tourists to this area," Somerville said. "It seems that there are other issues more important to deal with."

Some businesses owners in the area cannot understand why the city would impose such a law when many of its properties were built before Baltimore even became a city in 1797.

Cooper's property was built in 1790, while Crymes' dates back to the 1800s.

"That's the way it was built, that's the way I bought it," Crymes said.

Appeals expected

Property owners will be able to appeal the citations, Balog said. The city will review each property and determine whether easements were granted for attachments. Many of the property owners said they plan to fight the citations.

"We're trying to be sensible," Balog said. "But we have to do it, we have no choice."

Patrick Russell, who bought Kooper's Tavern almost two years ago, said he thinks the fines are another way for the city to get money.

"There are just so many different things you have to pay for and now there's another," said Russell, who was fined $350 for a basement door, cornice, sign and three light fixtures.

About five years ago, Russell said, a building inspector approved his establishment, which is in the 1700 block of Thames St., and did not note any encroachment violations.

"Why has this taken so long?" asked Russell. "Why out of the blue like this?"

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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