Arthur Miskimon's 19-year-old son Patrick died last… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
After Arthur Miskimon's 19-year-old son died from a three-story fall in an abandoned Dundalk warehouse, his grief drove him to learn all he could about the property.
Looking over a folder of code-enforcement papers about the former Seagram's whiskey distillery last fall, Miskimon felt sick.
"Why are these buildings still standing?" he asked.
The Sollers Point Road property, known as a blighted hangout for teens where up to 20 fires have broken out in the past five years, has long been a source of community complaints. A 40-year-old man was critically injured July 27 in a three-alarm fire. A spokeswoman for the Baltimore County police and fire departments said investigators still don't know what Sebastian M. Morawski was doing there.
The owner of the property, developer John Vontran, says he's tried his best to keep the place secured. Neighbors say neither he nor the county has taken enough responsibility for the site.
"It looks horrible. It's a disgrace," said Bryan Shepherd, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly three decades. "Baltimore County cannot let this keep going on. They've got a responsibility to the citizens here to get that place cleaned up."
Shepherd said he is tired of the overgrown weeds and frequent fires at the property. Trespassers usually sneak in from the back near the railroad tracks that run through the community, he said. In the front, "there's certain times that the gates are wide open so anyone can go through."
County code enforcement chief Lionel Van Dommelen said Vontran has not been fined because he has complied with county orders when violations have occurred.
The county has received 14 complaints about the property over the past five years, including about weeds, rats, graffiti and broken fences.
Last August, a county police detective wrote in a complaint to code enforcement officials that the owner was asked to fix fencing and check the property daily "and he has refused."
"Numerous holes in fencing, extensive brush overgrowth, numerous open abandoned buildings on property," the detective wrote. "If the owner would secure the property and maintain the grounds the fire hazard would be eliminated."
Vontran disagreed, saying, "That property's always been fenced. We've always fixed the holes."
The plant has not been used as a distillery since about 1992, according to a site history by state environmental officials.
Vontran bought the 12-acre property in late 2008 for $2.1 million, state records show.
His plan last year to move county government offices from the North Point Government Center to the Seagram's site and then build big-box stores at the government center drew opposition. He bid on the North Point Government Center this year and has proposed the same plan.
"At this point, if we don't get the [North Point property] we are very seriously looking at building apartments" at the Seagram's property, he said.
Vontran said the fence around the Seagram's property and the locked gates should make it obvious that people shouldn't be on the site. He said he met with county officials after the most recent fire.
Fires at the property have ranged from minor to multiple-alarm incidents, said Elise Armacost, a county police and fire spokeswoman. The county's arson team does not investigate every blaze. Since 2008, eight fires at the site have been ruled arsons, one was ruled accidental and three were of undetermined origin, she said.
After the most recent fire, Vontran said, he patched holes in the fences surrounding the property, only to find new ones a few days later and more this week. A code-enforcement log indicates that Vontran agreed to demolish part of a wall and remove bricks that are obstructing an internal roadway at the site so the current fire investigation can proceed.
"I can't tell you how many times I've fixed fences," he said. "Everything code enforcement has asked me to do, I always comply and I do it immediately."
In January, Vontran received a demolition permit from the county — good for one year — to knock down all of the buildings on the site, Van Dommelen said. State environmental officials approved a remediation plan for the site in April.
Vontran said he plans to tear down the buildings but isn't ready.
"If we don't get the [county bid award], we have to go back to the drawing board," he said. "So at this point, we're not in a hurry to get the buildings down."
Longtime resident Charles Spencer says county officials don't come down as hard on Vontran as they do on individual homeowners who violate county code.
"If any other citizen owned that property as an individual, we would've had to take care of it and clean it up," he said. "I know no one should be on the property, but there's a responsibility that all of us have in maintaining our property."
The parents of Patrick Miskimon, who died when he fell from scaffolding in one of the buildings, believe better maintenance could have prevented their son's death.