Corn in city, dirt in drain

September 18, 2007

THE PROBLEM -- Cornstalks growing in Highlandtown.

THE BACKSTORY -- We've all heard about alligators in the sewers. How about corn growing out of storm drains?

Watchdog just couldn't ignore this message left on the column's answering machine by Highlandtown resident Richard Rawlings, about a house for sale at Fait Avenue and South Clinton Street: "There are cornstalks growing in the gutter."

This is not exactly farm country. But last week there were cornstalks, most about 1 1/2 feet high - growing from under a curb and from a clogged storm drain on the Clinton Street side of the rowhouse.

The farmers' market is not in jeopardy: These stalks were nowhere near ready to be harvested. And Rawlings said kids had trampled the highest stalk, which stood about 3 feet high. "It's too bad because it had a nice growth," he said.

The two-story, 16-foot-wide corner rowhouse appears tidy, with side and front entrances. The asking price is $440,950.

But a closer inspection revealed some problems, besides the corn. The window sills were littered with dead flies and bees. At the side entrance one day last week, a coffee mug advertising City Council candidate Donald J. Dewar III - he lost - was left in a doorway and a campaign flier for Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - he also lost - hung on the doorknob.

"I can't understand how Realtors can show a property in such bad condition," Rawlings said.

Blocked storm drains and weeds that result from a buildup of dirt are common problems in Baltimore. The Department of Public Works said its crews cleaned 111 drains in the past two weeks, all the result of complaints to the 311 line. That didn't include routine maintenance of the city's 33,000 drains.

Keeping sidewalks, alleys and curbs clean of trash and debris is the responsibility of homeowners, and department spokesman Kurt L. Kocher said that far too many residents "think that the drains are a perfect place to get rid of their trash."

When the trash blocks a drain, such as on Clinton Street, it erodes the concrete and allows dirt to collect. Weeds grow out of the dirt. Public works crews cleared the Clinton Street drain and cleared - not harvested - the vegetation within hours of a call from Watchdog.

The owners of the Highlandtown house are in Texas, and their Realtor, Kevin Beal of Caldwell Banker, sounded chagrined that upkeep had faltered to the point where corn was growing from under the curb.

"I've probably not been as involved as I should be," he said. "Houses obviously don't sell well in that condition."

WHO CAN FIX THIS -- Bryan Samuels, chief of utility maintenance for the city Department of Public Works, 410-396-3500.

UPDATE -- The billboard that the city says lacks a permit is still up on the side of a building on St. Paul Street, more than seven weeks after the Housing Authority of Baltimore City promised to have it taken down. Housing authority spokeswoman Cheron Porter said it will be removed within two weeks.

Porter said the attorney for the owner, BPG Partners, informed the city that it could not find a contractor to remove the ad in Mid-Town Belvedere. Porter said the city was preparing to take legal action but stopped when officials learned that the company had hired someone. The delay now is that the contractor needs a permit to block a city sidewalk.

"We want to see this done as much as the community," Porter said yesterday. "It's been a long journey."

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