Court allows residents to sue city scrap yard

Appellate decision finds Mill Hill business represents public nuisance

June 08, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Dropping a legal bomb on a small Southwest Baltimore area long accustomed to explosions, a state appeals court has cleared the way for residents to sue a scrap metal yard -- and possibly shifted the balance of power in disputes between communities and their industrial neighbors.

The Court of Special Appeals decision, filed Friday by Judge Andrew Sonner, was hailed in tiny Mill Hill, where residents have complained for three decades of explosions, dust, and soot from neighboring United Iron & Metal Co.

As word of the decision spread across the city, lawyers and community activists involved in environmental disputes -- from a West Baltimore landfill to a Wagner's Point chemical company -- scrambled for copies.

"It will not be a cakewalk for plaintiffs, but it will be easier," said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who represents Wagner's Point residents. "It was just a matter of time before courts had to respond to situations like this."

Gary R. Jones, a lawyer for the scrap yard's owner, the Cincinnati-based David J. Joseph Co., said the firm would ask the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, to review the "confusing" decision. He complained that, if upheld, "the opinion changes Maryland law on public nuisance and makes it much more environmentalist friendly."

Sonner's opinion gave the Mill Hill neighborhood two victories in one of the city's longest and most complicated disputes.

It upheld a January 1998 jury verdict of $72,775 against the scrap yard, and it reinstated claims by three longtime residents that had been dismissed by Baltimore Circuit Court.

Those claims had died because of a ruling that residents, by living next to the scrap yard for more than 20 years without bringing suit, had in effect granted United Iron & Metal the right to operate its shredding machine as it chooses.

But the appeals court reversed that time limit by finding that the scrap yard represented a continuing public nuisance.

"There is considerable evidence demonstrating that Joseph's operation of the facility significantly interfered with the public peace and comfort," Sonner wrote.

G. Macy Nelson, the Mill Hill residents' lawyer, said, "I think the decision endorses the rights of citizens to bring nuisance claims against businesses that aren't operating properly -- regardless of how long they have lived there."

United Iron & Metal opened a scrap metal processing facility on Wilkens Avenue -- behind the city's longest unbroken block of rowhouses -- in 1915. The yard installed a car shredder in 1971.

David J. Joseph Co. bought the 18-acre plant in 1990 and boosted production to 100,000 cars a year.

Residents and the Maryland Department of Environment have blamed the car-shredding plant for poor air quality. After dozens of complaints and state citations, the yard installed a new kind of shredder in 1995, which has reduced -- but not eliminated -- gas tank explosions and dust, residents say.

"We had some problems," said Jones, the company's lawyer, "but they've been abated and corrected."

But Joe Tebo, one of the plaintiffs whose claims were revived by Sonner, said explosions still shatter his windows, and the dust continues to turn his clothing orange.

"It's not about money," said Tebo, 60, a truck driver who has lived there 43 years and argues that the yard has hurt the value of his property. "What I want is to see that junkyard go."

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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