Blight Fight

Frustration pits residents against City Hall in an ongoing battle over Downtown buildings. Change is happening, but is it too late, too late?

By Katherine Heerbrandt | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 05.04.15 – Feature, History, People & Places

Frederick resident Truby LaGarde, the leader of one of the city’s 12 Neighborhood Advisory Councils, was in Florida this past January, when her respite from a bone-chilling winter was rudely interrupted. “I got word that Mayor (Randy) McClement had gone on a rant at a city workshop on NAC 11. … I take that as a personal affront,” says LaGarde. A Downtown resident for more than 30 years, LaGarde takes pride in working productively with City Hall on a variety of issues.

Months later, recounting the memory, she is still angry. “He might as well have used my name, instead of talking about NAC 11. That was a real kick in the shins to somebody that has done a lot of work for the city, and will continue to do a lot of work for the city,” she says. The source of her discontent was a passionate, yet somewhat disjointed spiel from the mayor at a Jan. 21 workshop discussion on escalating fines for habitual offenders of the city’s property maintenance codes. Those remarks came on the heels of Alderman Josh Bokee’s comments about a disconnect between what the city is doing and residents’ perception of the progress related to building code enforcement, specifically in NAC 11, which covers a large segment of Downtown.

“We need to have an opportunity to somehow have a larger discussion … about how things are going, and where we are going next,” Bokee said at the workshop. Bokee had attended a NAC 11 meeting the previous evening and said he was simply “relaying” his observations to his colleagues. “I get a little frustrated about this,” the mayor said, leaning into the microphone. “I’ll say this and put it on the table. This is about one property owner in NAC 11, OK?” He was referencing, of course, the white whale to his Captain Ahab, the dilapidated former Asiana building at 123-125 N. Market St.

“It’s not about Randy McClement who lives on Schley Avenue and believes [Code Enforcement’s] success stinks because my neighbor has been a pain in my butt for the last three years. That is not success. Success is what they [Code Enforcement staff ] deem it to be across the city. … NAC 11 is about a certain business owner that is not complying, has not complied, for 15 years. We are working due diligently to fix that. … Take that out of the picture and what are we talking about? How many problems similar to Asiana do we have in NAC 11? In NAC 6, 9? In NAC 3? None.”

Code Enforcement Manager Dan Hoffman thanked the mayor for supporting his department on an issue that has beleaguered this and previous administrations since the restaurant opened and closed in 2001. But, Hoffman, too, believes the entirety of the city’s blight problem rests squarely in one block, and that no one cares but a handful of Gladys Kravitzes with too much time on their hands. “I have five people making complaints about me out of 66,000,” Hoffman said at the workshop.“I will rest easy on that. My staff is frustrated. We are tired of going over and over a dead horse. We are on top of Asiana; she [landlord Duk Hee Ro] will not get her permits until it’s completely fixed.”

Pressure to do something about the twice-condemned building mounted during McClement’s first term and into his second, culminating in a street protest of 70 people last spring, and a Facebook page, The City of Frederick’s Blight Problem, with more than 1,180 “likes.” A NAC 11 meeting on the issue last fall drew 50 attendees to hear what Hoffman had to say about blight. Hoffman pointed across the street at Asiana and said, “There’s your problem, right there.” He went on to tell the group that he could only do what he was ordered to do.

“Out of Control”

Last summer, the city obtained a consent order to force Asiana’s owners to clean and repair the building. In October, City Attorney Scott Waxter asked a District Court judge to waive the citations because the work had been done. Director of Public Works Zack Kershner says in an email that “all property management code violations for which the ten citations were specifically issued were corrected at the time the case was heard in court on Oct. 22, 2014.”

In the meantime, persistent residents complained that the building still had outstanding code violations, including a leaking roof, according to Ned Bond, owner of Da Black Cat, a boutique two storefronts away. New violations were cited on Oct. 22, with a compliance date of Nov. 24, according to a Nov. 18 city report. A re-inspection of the property on Nov. 18 revealed more violations, also with a compliance date of Nov. 24, according to the same report. But in an email dated Oct. 20, 2014, Code Enforcement Officer Brittany Parks said the building still had five outstanding violations, and she was prepared to write more, plus planned to let Waxter know.

Bond takes issue with the building being condemned, un-condemned, then condemned again, all without due process. In a string of emails on Nov. 25, 2014, city staff determined that because renovations were underway, the building was no longer deemed condemned. [When queried, however, the city’s answer to the building being un-condemned was that the placard had fallen down, according to a Jan. 27, email from McClement’s executive assistant Nikki Bamonti to Bond.] It was condemned again on Dec. 12, 2014. Bond says the city is “like a bad parent counting to three, then to 10 … they have trained [the property owners] to be nonresponsive.”

Bond accuses the city of a dizzying tangle of missteps and cover-ups, which he records in stacks of documents and in computer files that include pictures of the violations. He admits to losing his temper on occasion, but is confounded by the city’s show of progress with few results, and the conflicting answers he has received. The building is essentially in the same condition today as it was a year ago, he says. Resident complaints last fall prompted a series of emails where Code Enforcement employees aired their own grievances against residents. For example, Hoffman’s workshop statement that the source of complaints about Asiana was limited to a handful of people echoed an email from November of last year in which he accused the same malcontents with wasting tax money by demanding answers. The emails, and related documents, were obtained recently through a Public Information Act request from Bond at a cost of $400.

In a Nov. 9 email to Bamonti, the mayor’s assistant, with the subject line “Out of Control,” Hoffman wrote that his department “changed our entire delivery system and completely opened our entire reporting system to the public to satisfy 4 or 5 people who will never support this administration anyway … they write you emails ‘demanding’ written responses, they chase my assistant manager and our attorney through the courthouse screaming ‘I need to speak to you’ as if they are the Commander in Chief.” The email closed by citing a request for action to “stop this waste of tax money, manpower and finally [to preserve] our sanity and [prevent a] hostile work environment.”

Hoffman’s comments were part of a chain of emails that started with an inquiry to the mayor and Board of Aldermen from resident Maria Sadek about why citations were waived on the Asiana site: “Can you please share why the citations were all dropped when they still had work to do at the Asiana site and any other property still being repaired?” McClement did not reply to Sadek, but forwarded the request to Hoffman and Code Enforcement’s Parks. Parks wrote in an email to Hoffman that residents should only get information via “FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests in the future” and that “the Facebook [blight] page is what [is] leading people to believe things that are simply not true.”

Hoffman responded that Parks was “not to go out of her way for these people. They will never give us any respect. This is a sick hobby for them. It has been allowed to continue by answering their every whim. I said it months ago and I’ll say it now. It’s a sad display of weakness.” LaGarde remembers the courthouse scene referred to in Hoffman’s email very differently. Neither she nor her companion were chasing anyone, she says, and they certainly were not screaming when they asked why the city would waive citations on the Ro property when there was clearly more work to do. In an interview, McClement says there is a “core group” that “bombs” the city about the Ro property who has not been “professional.”

“Everyone is human,” he says. “There’s only so much people can take. We do our best and yet there are people who are at this and are very personal, using curse words in emails and calling people personal things when they are not getting what they want … it boils up and you snap.” Hoffman has not written any similar emails since November, McClement adds. Kershner, the Public Works director who oversees Hoffman’s department, wrote in an email that he has “set expectations for all Public Works Staff (which includes Code Enforcement) that our responsibility as public employees is to provide quality service in a professional manner to all.”

More than Asiana

In a Downtown that has received its share of accolades, blighted buildings “stand out like a sore thumb,” Alderman Kelly Russell says. “There is no silver bullet, but the relationship between government and residents has reached such a level of frustration, it’s hard to see clearly.” Even if the city took over condemned buildings, Russell says that relationship is “so damaged,” she’s not sure it can ever be repaired.

Although McClement—and some of his staff—believe that only a small group of people complain about blight, and that the former Asiana is the only problem Downtown, resident Harvey Linn disagrees. Linn, who lives on West Fourth Street, says he is “frustrated beyond belief,” that he is still looking at a decrepit and vacant property across the street at 20 W. Fourth St. And he wonders if anything will change in the 300 block of North Market, which includes vacant storefronts, including the former Carmack Jay’s property at 331 N. Market; even though the building had a facelift, it’s showing wear and tear, and Linn says it is a magnet for drunks after dark. “I am on Fourth Street. It’s not just ‘four or five people;’ my entire street of 15 people has complained. No one will listen. I am tired of talking,” he says. “It’s been 16 years and nothing has happened.”

The city finally acquired the townhouse at 20 W. Fourth St. last April, but the previous owner is appealing the tax sale and the demolition of the rear of the property that was approved. “We are doing everything we can to eliminate the problem,” Bamonti says. “It needs so much work. If not for all appeals, we would have sold it by now, and there is no budget to do repairs. Given the state of the property overall, and by demolishing the back part, we wouldn’t get our money back.” Linn, whose home has been featured on holiday and garden tours, had planned to retire in Frederick, but he’s unsure now. “I don’t want to stay in a place where people are not respecting the investment I put into my property. I don’t want to spend another 16 years looking at property decaying,” he says.

South Market Street has its own issues. Fake building facades at numbers 58-62 and 66-70 have been hiding empty and littered lots since 2000, when the actual buildings were torn down; the city announced they would be coming down in 2012 after the lots were purchased. Boarded up, with visible rot on the doors and window frames, 56 S. Market, at the intersection of Carroll Creek Linear Park and Market Street, has no code violations or fines recorded, but was recently put on the city’s watch list, with no set date for its removal.

No Quick Fixes

The details are complex and solutions are hard. The former Asiana has stymied past administrations. Potential solutions emerge, only to fizzle out and then re-emerge, sometimes multiple times during the same administration. Thousands of column inches in the daily paper and local magazines have been devoted to the problems of blighted and vacant properties, particularly in the last few years. The city has expended serious effort on the problem, but it doesn’t push hard enough or long enough to see it through, critics say. During former Mayor Jeff Holtzinger’s administration, and twice under McClement’s, the city has considered a plan to tax property based on land value, so as not to incentivize property owners to let their properties fall into disrepair.

The Land Value Tax may be worth revisiting, Alderman Michael O’Connor says. Meanwhile, the city recently added another position to its Code Enforcement department recently, and equipped staff with laptops and other technology to help them be more efficient, McClement says. On April 2, the Board of Aldermen voted to allow escalating fines for repeat offenders, one of the recommendations made by task forces assigned to study blighted and vacant properties. O’Connor says maybe it’s time to regroup and follow up with the task force recommendations. “The public believes what the public believes and they are not wrong,” O’Connor says. “I think we don’t have a good handle on how much tolerance the public has for us being bold. There are examples of properties where we can be bold. 123 N. Market [the Asiana building] is an example.”

In September 2013, the city passed a law allowing it to petition the court to appoint someone to refurbish, demolish or sell blighted buildings. In October of that year, McClement sent a letter to Asiana’s owners informing them of the legislation and encouraged them to fix their buildings. The city has not yet applied the law. “It’s [receivership] a very serious undertaking and not something we take lightly,” Bamonti says. “With all properties determined to be blighted, we have been able to make some progress. As long as we are making progress, we aren’t going to take the time and effort of going through receivership.”

Former Mayor Jennifer Dougherty has been a vocal critic of the city’s strategy to combat blight and ran against McClement in 2013, but she recognizes that change comes slowly. During her term, from 2002 to 2006, the city began legal proceedings to take the house on Fourth Street. The city lost in court, but won an appeal after she left office. Code Enforcement Manager Mike Blank, later awarded a Superman cape from NAC 3, “Hit Asiana in fits and starts,” she says, including $10,000 in fines. “The city did not need receivership legislation because the city has the legal right to condemn a blighted property and pay the property owner for it, using its powers of eminent domain,” she says. “I know it takes time, but there has to be a limit to the patience the city shows.”

Protests, complaints and the Facebook page appear to have helped quicken the pace. Plans are on paper for some other blighted and vacant properties. The Union Mills building at 340 E. Patrick St. has stood empty for more than a decade, with pipes sticking out of the windows, and water draining onto the street, but was not on the blighted properties list. Owner Douglas Development Corp, which also owns the former Carmack Jay’s building, was approved for a tax credit from both the city and the county for $420,990.

Qualifying owners had to be actively marketing the property in the last 18 months. Douglas Development plans to invest $5 million, according to city documents. Andy Stout, one of the administrators of the Facebook page, encouraged residents to contact City Hall and Douglas Development about Carmack Jay’s. On April 1, they claimed victory when McClement announced a community meeting on the issue for May 13 with the property owner.

McClement thanked the community for its “message regarding this important project.” As for Asiana, the city website reports that 123-125 N. Market St. has “corrected its violations” and “continues to work with the Building Department to encourage completion of work and open permits.” The Building Department has no authority over the completion of the work, but is called in to inspect when permits are requested.

Although he says he understands that blight is prevalent in every city, Stout believes Frederick deserves better. “Until City Hall snaps out of its denial that there are even issues that need to be addressed, we are not getting anywhere near success. Success looks like not needing a Facebook page to essentially operate as some sort of quasi government city department, forcing the mayor to act, and holding Code Enforcement accountable,” Stout says. But McClement counters the city can only do so much, and is making progress. “We can’t legislate bad business practices,” he says. “We can’t legislate stupidity.”