City landlord fights ruling to demolish grocery

demonstrators declare victory

March 08, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

As the state's highest court heard a challenge yesterday to a District Court order to raze a Northwest Baltimore store, more than two dozen Park Heights activists declared victory over the landlord of the grocery, which was deemed a drug hub and closed last year.

Though the Court of Appeals will not issue a ruling for months, and three judges questioned whether demolishing the building was overkill, community leaders said they made their point.

"We want to send a message for other landlords that we won't stand for just anything," said community organizer Henry Thompson. "This is an important case for the community."

Property owner Allen B. Becker is challenging a 1999 District Court order to demolish his building at 2900 Springhill Ave. In the city's first exercise of its "nuisance abatement" powers, officials targeted Springhill Market for demolition last year after residents and police complained it had become a base for drug dealers. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge upheld the ruling in September, and Becker appealed.

Activists said their concern, unity and willingness to work with police and other agencies contributed to the city's efforts to attack the area known for drugs.

Becker's attorney, Ira L. Oring of Baltimore, argued that District Court lacks the legal authority to order the building razed. He blamed Ulysses Holmes, 65, who leased the building, for the drug problem. In forcing Holmes to leave and close his store, Becker took action, Oring said.

Assistant Attorney General Andrew H. Baida disputed Oring's assertion that Becker was not given a chance to do more. "This statute is a drug nuisance abatement statute. It is not a punitive statute," Oring said.

Three of seven judges asked both attorneys if demolition was too drastic, given that Becker offered to turn the building into a residential property.

"Any boarded-up house in Baltimore City where someone is stashing drugs there -- we can go in and destroy it?" asked Judge John C. Eldridge, also commenting that "it makes no sense here, your position that the building has to go when you can put a new building up there that can create a new nuisance."

After the hearing, Baida said: "It was hard to them to accept the idea of a building demolition without pursuing all other avenues." He had told the judges that District Judge Timothy J. Doory had decided "the people in this neighborhood have suffered enough" from drug trafficking linked to the building. "Razing this building may seem like an extreme action to take. But this case calls for an extreme response," Baida said.

Community activists said they won no matter how the court rules. "I think it's a victory for our community even if they decide it [Becker's] way. We came to defend ourselves and our community," said Tom Ireland, president of the Circle Improvement Association.

"I'm proud of this community," said Sharon Duncan-Jones, executive director of the Park Heights-Reisterstown Corridor Coalition, saying residents have become a force negligent property owners will have to reckon with.

After the hearing, police said that while the grocery is closed, pay telephones outside still draw the drug trade.

"The issue is: It is still providing somewhat of a habitat. There are still drug dealings going on there," said police Officer Herbert Lindemeyr. "It is a quality-of-life issue. They [residents] can't go outside at night. The kids can't play outside."

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