County, landlord negotiate repairs

Mediator is assigned to case that involves 30 Pioneer City homes

Anne Arundel

July 19, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

County officials and the Pioneer City landlord they sued to force repairs to his run-down rental properties spent yesterday in a mediation session that is to resume this morning.

Mohammad I. Zuberi owns 30 townhouses on Arwell Court, one of the most crime-ridden streets in Anne Arundel County. He agreed last month to bring them up to minimum county code standards, but yesterday he objected to nearly the entire 87-page list of repairs the county seeks and made an unsuccessful bid to have a judge throw out his signed agreement to cooperate with the county to fix the structures.

District Judge Vincent A. Mulieri ordered Zuberi and Assistant County Attorney Howard P. Nicholson into mediation after a few minutes in his Annapolis courtroom when it became clear that Zuberi took issue with the number of defects alleged by health officials.

They met privately with a volunteer mediator to try to agree on a list of repairs, with mediation expected to continue at least through today.

If successful, mediation will eliminate the need for a trial in which each repair the county seeks - more than 1,000 - would be examined separately. Such a trial would take weeks, Mulieri said.

But mediation could last a long time as well. Mulieri will be asked to rule on whatever the two sides can't agree upon.

"We are discussing one by one," Zuberi said as the session broke for lunch yesterday. The Ellicott City man could not be reached for comment last night.

Nicholson said they were taking "little steps" in progress.

A consent order signed last month also laid out a timetable for completing repairs, with the first to be made by Aug. 8 and all properties brought into compliance with health and safety standards by Oct. 7. Mulieri can fine Zuberi up to $1,000 a day and take other action against him if he does not meet the terms of the agreement.

Complete repairs on all the houses are estimated to cost about $100,000, said Bob Farmer, president of Warfield Condominium Association No. 3, where the homes are located. An added wrinkle is that Zuberi is in the midst of a bankruptcy reorganization. He also owes the condo association at least $82,000, Farmer said.

The homes at issue sit on Arwell Court in Severn, a street known for open-air drug deals, shootings and robberies.

Community improvement efforts over the years have failed. Nevertheless, tenants, police, church members and property owners say they are increasing efforts to turn things around.

Recently, county officials inspected all homes in the condo association. Zuberi was one of three landlords who balked at repairs, Farmer said. With similar court cases pending against the other two owners, the community and condo board have their eyes on Zuberi's case.

"I certainly think the county is trying to set a precedent with Zuberi. I think what happens to him is certainly going to set a precedent with [the other two] and with other landlords in this county," said the Rev. Cynthia Belt, pastor of New Beginnings United Methodist Church, which meets in a school across the road from Pioneer City. Some of the church's members live in homes owned by Zuberi and his wife, Lillemor.

Farmer agreed: "I think the Health Department for that reason needs to be very firm. I think they will be, and I think they realize what is at stake, too."

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