Dirty lot leads to jail

30-day sentence issued for contempt in civil case

Scrap yard `is an eyesore'

July 30, 1999|By Zerline A. Hughes | Zerline A. Hughes,SUN STAFF

Garden snakes, dead rats and scrap metal have led to the lengthiest jail sentence in Baltimore's history of code enforcement violations for a Park Heights man, authorities say.

Alan Verschleisser, who owns Potter's Salvage, could be released today from the Baltimore City Detention Center. He was sentenced to 30 days for civil contempt. Twenty days of the sentence were suspended, but if Verschleisser fails to clean up the scrap yard at his Baker Street property in West Baltimore by Oct. 22, he would serve the rest of the sentence.

Even with 20 days of the sentence suspended, Verschleisser's sentence would be the longest for failure to clean up a property, according to officials in the city's code enforcement office.

"This is the longest jail sentence for civil contempt -- so far," said Denise Duval, director of the code enforcement legal section of the housing department. "The message it sends is that you better comply, or you may end up in jail. It's an important case because it shows that both the city's housing department and court system are taking these matters seriously "

Verschleisser has earned credits for good behavior and work while in jail, leading to his eligibility for release after serving less than five days, according to Barbara Cooper, spokeswoman for the detention center.

Neighbors in Easterwood, Ash Coast and Coppin Heights say they have complained for 13 years about Verschleisser's L-shaped lot that takes up more than three city blocks at Baker Street and Thomas Avenue. Residents say Verschleisser's property has concrete rubble and scrap metal -- home to garden snakes and rats that have visited the neighbors.

"I've talked to [Verschleisser] several times," said Baker Street homeowner Chessie Brailey. "I told him we weren't angry in any way. We're not fighting, we're not fussing, we're not cussing. We just want this to be a residential area."

Said James O. Williams, who has lived around the corner from the scrap yard on Moreland Avenue since 1950: "Between the stench of dead rats and the snake problem, it's horrible," he said.

The case went to court in December. Judge Timothy Doory issued an order in March for the 1.65 acres to be cleaned up by April 22. When he found on Monday that the work had not been done, Doory sent Verschleisser to jail.

"Verschleisser was in violation of city codes because he does not have a zoning permit to use his property as a scrap yard, and the property is an eyesore and a nuisance to the neighborhood," said Lisa Hyde Mart, special assistant city solicitor in the code enforcement office.

Harry Chase, Verschleisser's attorney, said his client has been trying to clean up since the court order was issued in March, but has not had enough laborers to help him remove everything.

"He's cut down trees, moved 200 pounds of materials, and he plans to continue," Chase said. "It turns out there had been more material than he thought. He sought help from employees that come in one day and don't come in the next day. We think we are doing everything to comply with the law."

Chase said Verschleisser is unable to work or hire help on Fridays and Saturdays because of his religious beliefs. He also said a couple of members of Verschleisser's family died, requiring him to mourn for several days at a time.

Verschleisser received his sentence because Doory held him in contempt for failing to meet the cleanup deadline. Justine Bogan, a Prince George's County resident, was held in contempt in December for failing to clean up property in Ashburton and sentenced to 15 days, Duval said. Bogan served only a few days in jail because she put her property on the market.

Code enforcement lawyers take many of their cases to civil court. Criminal housing court cases can only end in fines -- and even then, a property owner may not clean up, Duval said. In civil cases, a property owner is required by law to follow a court order to clean up and can face jail time.

Until recently, jail sentences have been rare. But they have a purpose.

"Verschleisser's case was done as punishment," Mart said.

Pub Date: 7/30/99

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