Trouble bubbles up at Bartlett's place

W. Md. congressman at odds with stepson

March 01, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - All is not right at Gayfield Manor, the antebellum estate that is home and sanctuary to Roscoe G. Bartlett, landlord, farmer, builder, inventor and congressman.

In good times, the 32-room, white brick farmhouse, with its greenhouse and goldfish pond, provides Bartlett a respite from Capitol Hill, where he is serving his fifth term. Wearing overalls and a ball cap, the conservative 75-year-old Republican with the John Waters-style pencil mustache tools around old barns on his Frederick County farm - tending to goats and sheep or tinkering with one of his several 1941 Cadillacs.

But lately, the ambience of the lanky country gentleman's retreat has been fouled by a pernicious odor and an equally nasty family feud.

Recently, puddles of wastewater began bubbling up in a field near 20 small rooms and apartments that Bartlett built decades ago out of a barn and tenant house on the 140 acres beside the Monocacy River. They rent for between $300 and $550 a month.

Rank-smelling water gurgled beneath the shower drain when one resident flushed the toilet. As if trying to ward off a poltergeist, a neighboring tenant lit scented candles because of the stench, which county health officials attributed to septic system problems.

It's not the first health issue raised on his farm, nor is it the first time Bartlett has found himself squarely in the path of unwelcome publicity.

As a new congressman in the early 1990s, Bartlett was criticized for remarking that Asian-American science scholarship winners did not have "normal American" names and for opposing - as unnecessary - federal aid for his district after a 1993 snowstorm.

Born on a Kentucky farm, he is a self-described "citizen-legislator" who prides himself on the calluses on his hands and scoffs at his slick brethren in Washington.

And what could be less slick than the island of muck recently appearing on the lawn or the sheep and goat carcasses he once left on the farm for wild scavengers until the county Health Department objected?

In 1992, the state found traces of nitrate above safe drinking levels in well water he provided to his tenants, and he had to drill new wells.

Since then, tenants have registered at least "a few complaints - more than one" about the apartments, says David Hubbard, code enforcer at the county's Department of Housing and Community Development.

"Every violation I have cited at the Bartletts, they have come around to make improvements to solve the case," Hubbard says, adding that the complaints aren't available for public inspection.

Bartlett says he's also taken care of the septic system failure, an issue residents say lingered for months. The congressman concedes there was "a trifling problem" about a year ago, which he tried to address by building a flower bed to help absorb foul water.

But the plants eventually "keeled right over," says tenant Barbara Kirk, holding up a droopy palm to illustrate. She makes a wrinkled face - "Oh my God," she says - when asked about the funky odor in her apartment, one of three units that Bartlett constructed from a tenant house built some 40 years ago.

But Bartlett says there wasn't much of a smell until a week ago, when he hired contractors to dig a new septic field and pump out the tank.

A backhoe recently was on the property digging and then smoothing the dirt at a cost of $2,900, Bartlett says. But the congressman will have a harder time smoothing his relationship with tenant Bob Kirk, who is Barbara's husband.

Bob Kirk has been the most outspoken of Bartlett's renters about the septic woes, calling the Health Department, the county sheriff's office and the news media to complain. Before the heavy equipment arrived on the scene, a deputy sheriff had visited the site in response to Kirk's call and asked Bartlett to erect a fence around the wading pool-sized spot where the wastewater surfaced.

Kirk, 41, is a carpenter who lives in his apartment rent-free with his wife and three children under an agreement to help maintain the other rental properties.

He's also Bartlett's stepson.

"We just want this problem taken care of," Kirk says. "The only way to get his attention is to get down and dirty."

Says Kirk's mother, Ellen, married to Bartlett for 35 years: "He's my oldest son and I love him dearly, but he's not himself lately."

Kirk is one of Ellen Bartlett's four children from a previous marriage. The congressman also had four children before marrying Ellen. The couple have two kids of their own, including Joe Bartlett, a state House delegate.

Last Saturday, after Kirk had complained to authorities, he and Barbara found an eviction notice slipped in their front door asking the family to "vacate the premises" by midnight March 31. The Kirks say they consider the notice their punishment for speaking up.

But Ellen Bartlett, who acts as landlord, says she had little choice. "He was supposed to be doing repair and maintenance, and now I had to be doing it. He's getting free rent," she says.

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