A politically connected Baltimore contractor has been ordered to shave down a mountainous pile of construction and demolition debris that has become an eyesore for residents of a Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.
The debris sits on land in the 3000 block of W. Cold Spring Lane that is used by P&J Contracting, a firm owned by Pless B. Jones Sr. On Tuesday, city officials hit Jones with three violation notices and gave him 30 days to fix the problems. Neighborhood residents say the debris pile had been growing for more than a year.
Jones was cited a week after East Baltimore Development Inc. announced that it had awarded an $8 million contract to Jones' firm to demolish 500 vacant homes near Johns Hopkins Hospital. The demolition is part of an extensive project to create a biotechnology park and to revitalize the area around the hospital.
Jones, in a phone interview yesterday, acknowledged that the debris pile "got out of hand." He said the pile resulted from the company's knocking down a tower that had been at that site years ago and his plan to recycle the leftover concrete for construction projects.
Jones said his company has begun to bring the debris down to an acceptable level and expects to complete the job by the middle of next month.
"We want to do everything we can to stay in good standing with the city and with the neighborhood," said Jones. The pile poses no environmental threat to the community, he said.
Over the years, Jones, 57, has been a heavy contributor to local and federal campaigns, and his firm has prospered from government contracts earmarked for minority businesses.
In 2000, Jones pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from illegal contributions to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings' first House race. He admitted that he asked family and employees to contribute to Cummings' campaign and reimbursed them with company money.
David Tillman, a city housing department spokesman, said Jones received a verbal warning last month after a code enforcement officer visited the site and determined that the debris was too high.
The code enforcement officer visited the property last week, Tillman said, and decided that not enough progress had been made. City officials want the debris to be close to fence level, or 10 feet.
Jones "did respond, but it just wasn't enough," Tillman said.
Tillman said Jones received three notices for improperly storing bulk items at the site, violations that could cost Jones up to $500 a day if they go uncorrected.
Lillian Sydnor, president of the Cold Spring Lane Improvement Association, said she met with Jones two weeks ago to discuss the debris pile which sits adjacent to the neighborhood.
Sydnor said Jones assured her that the debris would be reduced to an acceptable level in 60 days. She said she accepted Jones' word but was prepared to stage a community petition drive to force him to remove it if he broke his promise.
Sydnor said Jones convinced her that he was willing to do "the right thing by the community."
"He knows he can't have it that high," Sydnor said. "Who the hell wants to look at that?"
This week, EBDI President Jack Shannon said P&J beat out two other firms because it had the best proposal for the demolition work. Shannon said he was unaware of the debris pile but said he knew about Jones' previous conviction on the federal campaign finance violation.
The misdemeanor conviction was not a "relevant" factor in judging the firm's proposal for the demolition work, he said. EBDI is a nonprofit that is managing the revitalization project.
"We looked at it as this firm is qualified and legal to do this work," Shannon said of P&J's selection. "We look at what has happened recently and them being responsive to do exactly what we want with staffing and employment."
Jones is well-known in political circles. He has funneled thousands of dollars to political candidates over the years. After flirting with bankruptcy in the early 1990s, Jones and his company contributed to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Jones' firm received numerous contracts from Schmoke's housing department, which was run by commissioner Daniel P. Henson.
More recently, Jones gave $500 to City Council President Sheila Dixon's campaign in 2004, $1,000 to City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings-Blake last year and $2,100 to Kweisi Mfume's run for the U.S. Senate.
The P&J compound is at the end of Ridgewood Avenue and is visible from the sidewalk in front of a block of rowhouses. A city-run drug detoxification center opened recently a few hundred feet away.
Eleanor Moore, a neighborhood resident, said she has had to look at the debris pile for more than a year. Her home in the 1200 block of Ridgewood Ave. is not far from the P&J head offices and the compound.
Late last week, she sat on her porch wishing that the "terrible sight" near her home would soon vanish.
"You never know what's in that [debris]," Moore said.