Judge orders church group to fix homes

East Baltimore bishop, development arm must restore them in a year

October 24, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Declaring three badly blighted rowhouses to be a "continuing nuisance," a city judge ordered the head of a prominent East Baltimore church and the church's community development corporation yesterday to clean up the buildings within 15 days and completely renovate them within a year.

In issuing the order against Bishop Franklin C. Showell, head of First Apostolic Institutional Faith Church, and Apostolic Community Development Corp., District Judge Nancy B. Shuger set strict interim deadlines for obtaining financing and beginning renovation of the properties in the historic Washington Hill neighborhood.

If Showell and the development corporation do not meet the deadlines, they will have to sell the properties or auction them, according to the order.

Shuger rejected a request by the city to impose fines of $1,500 on Showell and $2,000 on the development corporation for ignoring housing violation notices on the properties in the 1400 block of E. Lombard St.

"The court wants to send a message that every bit of energy and every bit of money should be put into these properties," Shuger said at the conclusion of a trial that took up parts of three days over the past two months. "These properties deserve serious attention."

The judge also gave Showell and the development corporation 60 days to complete renovations of a fourth property at 10 S. Caroline St.

Shuger's order was a major victory for the city, which is stepping up its efforts to deal with derelict properties, and for neighborhood leaders, who have been battling the church and its development arm over the properties for years. The city had filed for a court order in May, seeking to have the rowhouses renovated or sold.

"Property owners should comply with housing and building notices they get," said Michael E. Braverman, director of the housing department's code enforcement legal section. "If necessary, we will take them to court no matter who they are."

Simon Hemby, president of Citizens for Washington Hill, said residents of the neighborhood south of the Johns Hopkins medical complex would be overjoyed by the ruling.

"It shows the system can work if you diligently press the issue," he said.

Showell, whose church has 3,500 members and has been in Washington Hill for 55 years, and his attorney, James L. Rouse, declined to comment on the order. Rouse said he and his client would have to "absorb" the opinion before deciding whether to appeal.

Residents and a city housing inspector testified that the Lombard Street properties were a haven for homeless squatters, a health hazard and an eyesore.

The development corporation began cleaning and cinder-blocking the properties just before the first court date in August, but made no substantial repairs.

In closing arguments yesterday, special assistant city solicitor Evan L. Helfrich said Showell and the development corporation had made no effort to rehabilitate the properties since they bought them in 1997.

Rouse did not defend the condition of the properties but said that the original violation notices were improperly served. He added that Showell should not be subject to the order, arguing that the properties are owned by the development corporation and that the church merely provides funds to its development arm.

Shuger rejected Rouse's arguments, ruling that there was "legally sufficient" service of the violation notices and that there was "ample and abundant evidence" that Showell was the operator of the properties.

"There is no question that these properties are in a sad state and are a continuing nuisance to the community in which they are located," Shuger said. "These are precisely the kind of problems which such injunctive actions are designed to address and remedy."

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