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Quick and Dirty

Contractor Crackdown

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/14/2005

Department of Public Works officials announced a series of weekend sweeps to catch unpermitted scaffolding and illegally parked trash bins in city neighborhoods. The sweeps, conducted over the weekends of Nov. 4, 12, and 19, resulted in 95 citations and $17,550 in fines, according to a DPW press release. “Poorly erected scaffolding could pose a hazard to pedestrians,” the press release reads. “Shoddy construction practices have resulted in partial building collapse.”

City Paper has published stories about injuries resulting from a falling scaffold and a building collapse captained by Michael Mfume, senatorial candidate Kweisi’s son, both in Reservoir Hill. (“Unsafe Zone,” Mobtown Beat, Sept. 8, 2004; “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ Down ‘Kevin’s’ Door,” The Nose, June 29). DPW polices the public rights of way—alleys, sidewalks, and the like—whereas construction on private property is the province of the Housing Department. Critics say the city’s building-permit and code-enforcement process is weak, spotty, and possibly corrupt, with politically connected contractors getting away with shoddy work and/or no permits. A City Council resolution pending since Aug. 15 is titled “Investigative Hearing—Is the Building Permit Process Promoting Non-Compliance?”

“The resolution—to be nice to the city—is worded very nicely,” says Fells Point property owner Deborah Tempera, following a recent hearing on the resolution at City Hall. “Everyone who got up to speak said not only is the process itself [a problem], but we also brought up inspections, specific inspectors.”

The resolution acknowledges that in some of the city’s hottest neighborhoods “unscrupulous property speculators” and some residents are building big, view-blocking home additions without pulling permits or getting required zoning variances. “The consequences for working without a permit in Baltimore City are: the greater of a fine of up to $1,000 or 50 percent of the total permit fee. There should be a higher penalty for purposely circumventing the process. . . . [I]f it’s put up in bad faith it should be taken down in reparation,” the resolution reads, in part. The resolution asks the housing commissioner and the executive director of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals to report to the City Council on the current process and to “demonstrate the integrity of the city’s construction permitting process.”

Tempera says she thinks the pending resolution spurred DPW’s recent raids. DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher insists there is no connection and says that the weekend sweeps will continue. “The problem is these illegal contractors were expecting us to be doing a 9 to 5 weekdays operation,” he says. “By varying our time of day, or night, or days of the week, they no longer have that comfort zone."

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