County braces for landlord court case

Mediation over list of nearly 1,000 repairs fails, prompting trial


July 28, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County health officials who have been negotiating with a landlord over housing code violations on one of the county's most crime-ridden streets are preparing for a prolonged legal battle they had hoped to avoid.

No date has been set for a trial in the case against Mohammad I. Zuberi, but county officials said they expect it to begin sometime next month. District Judge Vincent A. Mulieri has said such a hearing could take weeks because the list of repairs in dispute is so extensive.

This year, the county's Health Department sued Zuberi after the Ellicott City resident failed to fix what inspectors identified as code violations at 30 of his homes on Arwell Court, a small, dead-end street in the Pioneer City neighborhood in Severn.

Last month, after Zuberi agreed in writing to fix the violations, the judge ordered the landlord and health inspectors to compile a list of repairs. The defects, which the department then detailed in an 87-page, single-spaced report, include items ranging from rotting wood and peeling paint to rodent infestations and ceiling holes.

But this month, Zuberi objected to nearly every repair on the county's list, calling many "cosmetic" and asking the judge to throw out the agreement.

Mulieri, seeking to avoid a trial that would dissect each of the nearly 1,000 repairs that health officials say Zuberi must make, ordered the parties into mediation. But three days of mediation proved fruitless. After listening to the mediator's report at a hearing Friday, the judge told Zuberi he should prepare for a long trial.

Assistant County Attorney Howard P. Nicholson, who is handling the case, said he wasn't surprised at the stalemate.

"Mediation requires a certain attitude. I just don't think this defendant had the appropriate attitude for mediation to work," Nicholson said after the hearing.

Nicholson added that he and county health inspectors have been prepared for a trial all month.

Zuberi said the sticking point in negotiations has been the inspectors' interpretations of the code. Definitions of phrases such as "good repair" and "disrepair" are subjective, he argued.

"I do not agree that they are violations, do you understand me? I think they are boo-boos by these people, these inspectors, and are subject to interpretation. There is no danger to life. There is no health hazard," he said in an interview Friday.

"I have been telling everyone, from the beginning, if you tell me what is wrong with the units, in accordance with the code, I will be happy to fix it, and I have not been happy with the response," Zuberi said.

Nicholson acknowledged that the housing code needs to be more specific and that his office is working on an update. However, he said, many of the items on the list are clear violations.

For the handful of Pioneer City property owners and residents who have attended Zuberi's many court appearances this summer, Friday's turn of events was disheartening but expected.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm sure the county Health Department will prevail," said Robert Farmer, president of Warfield Condominium Association No. 3, where the homes are located.

Added Nicholson: "This is not a setback. It's just a curb on the road to where we're going."

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