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Property complaints rise with increase of foreclosesures in Washington Co.

May 27, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- In a neighborhood of manicured lawns and well-kept gardens, 521 Beaver Creek Road stood out.

Grass and weeds on the property were waist-high.

Trash bags, cardboard boxes and tattered furniture were piled on the back porch and in the yard.

A soggy newspaper from October 2007 rested on the front stoop.

The two-story house has been vacant since November, when its previous owner left and the lender foreclosed on the mortgage.

Since then, the house has gone to the bank and the yard had gone untended, which irritates neighbors like Russell Keyes, who lives across the street.

"It's a sight," Keyes said last week as he looked over his freshly mowed yard to the vacant property. He said the woman "who used to live there kept the place spotless."

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Keyes called Washington County to find out what can be done about the property.

On Tuesday, a county crew showed up to cut the grass at 521 Beaver Creek Road, Keyes said.

While the county took care of the unkempt lawn that annoyed Keyes, county officials say they are playing catch-up with a glut of overgrown, vacated properties, many of which have been foreclosed upon and taken over by banking companies several states away.

"The basic problem is that we can't get a hold of who we need to get a hold of," said Kathy Kroboth, zoning coordinator for the Washington County Permits and Inspections Department. "A lot of times we don't even have a phone number for the bank. We can send a letter, but what are the chances it will get to the right person, if there even is one?"

Late last week, the county had 46 open weed complaints on file. Of those, 38 were thought to be related to foreclosures, said Daniel F. DiVito, director of permits and inspections.

Those properties account for about 5 percent of the more than 700 foreclosures that have been filed in Washington County in the last year.

The county has mailed certified letters, notifying the owners of all 46 properties that they had 10 days to bring the property into compliance with the county's weed ordinance.

In many cases, those letters were returned to the county because no one was at the houses to sign for them, Kroboth said.

So the county is preparing to send its highway department out to clean up the properties and will bill the owners for the work.

If those bills aren't paid in 30 days, the county will place liens on the properties, Kroboth said.

"This is basically what we can do to solve the problem in the short term from the neighbors' perspectives," County Attorney John M. Martirano said. "But how we recover the money it costs us to go out there, we'll have to figure that out."

The City of Hagerstown deals with overgrown properties in a similar way, sending 10-day notices to property owners and doing the work itself if those notices are ignored, Director of Code Administration John Lestitian said.

The city charges a $200 fine and $110 administration fee on top of the cost of doing the work.

If bills go unpaid, the city places a lien on the property.

Lestitian said the fines are steep for a reason.

"We don't want to become someone's lawn-mowing service," Lestitian said.

Kroboth said the county charges $200 to mobilize work crews. From there, costs can vary, she said, depending on how much work has to be done.

Martirano said that at this time of year crews might have to go to properties more than once to cut grass as it grows back.

He said it also will be difficult to make sure title companies know the property is under a lien.

Weed-control violations don't trigger liens the way unpaid water and sewer bills do, Martirano said.

Although the county took care of 521 Beaver Creek Road on Tuesday, Kroboth noted that it will take the county some time to get to all the vacant properties.

"We want people to understand, we're doing what we can. It just might take a little longer than usual," Kroboth said.

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