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Mobtown Beat

Building a Case

Councilman Requests Investigation Of Complaints About Uneven Enforcement Of Building Code

Frank Klein
AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER: A man who identified himself as "John Henry" sits on the front steps of 234 S. Chester St. and hides his face while using a cameraphone to take a picture of a City Paper photographer.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 8/16/2006

In 2001 Alan Dittmar started rebuilding his two-story rowhouse at 246 S. Chester St. from the inside out. The brick side walls were both leaning south by more than one degree--or about eight inches at the top of their 30-foot heights. Dittmar says he, his wife, and one of his sons dismantled the house room-by-room from the inside and rebuilt the structure so that the floors are now supported by two-by-six studs. He also removed his home's front wall and rebuilt it brick-by-brick, plumb and solid. During this time, he says, the hardest part of the process was dealing with city inspectors.

"There was lots of harassment," says Dittmar, a wiry, flinty-eyed retiree with a workman's tan. "They tried to say the house is unstable. I had to get an engineer to say it was OK."

Even then, Dittmar says the city inspector taunted him. "When I was bricking the front," he says, the inspector "was parked here with a condemned sign in his hand."

Dittmar's experience contrasts with the treatment given to others on the block, he and other neighbors say. Within sight of Dittmar's home are half a dozen vinyl-clad additions, all of them larger than would be permitted under zoning regulations, he says, and all of them done without permits and despite neighbors' complaints to city officials.

Currently, workers at 234 S. Chester are doubling the size of an already large three-story rowhouse, despite lack of permits and two "stop work" orders posted by a city inspector. The house--which shows a permit pulled for "non-structural demolition" in mid July--has been completely gutted, its back wall removed. In the rear yard is a hole some nine feet deep, as wide as the house and more than 30 feet long. Dittmar and other neighbors say they lodged numerous complaints more than two weeks before a city inspector posted a "stop work" order. Workers tore off the sign the next day and continued working. More complaints led to a kind of compromise, according to an e-mail exchange obtained by City Paper between another neighbor and Michael Braverman, the deputy commissioner for housing: a city inspector "excepted" the new foundation and basement walls from the "stop work" order, Braverman wrote, because of an unspecified "safety issue."

In the wake of City Paper's stories about collapsing buildings ("Collapse," July 26 and Aug. 2), residents across the city contacted the paper with stories about what they regard as unfair or inconsistent treatment by building-code inspectors. Several, including Dittmar, opined that for building and code inspections to be as inconsistent as they are city officials must be taking bribes.

City Councilman Jim Kraft (D-1st District) asked the city's Inspector General to investigate "allegations and inferences" found in the City Paper stories and in documents a city activist has brought to their attention for years.

City housing officials, however, have not responded to requests for new information from City Paper. "If you have specific questions about this or any housing issues in the future please submit your request in writing and I will happily respond within the guidelines of the Maryland Public Information Act," Baltimore Housing spokesman David Tillman wrote in an e-mailed response to a request for an update on the story. The Maryland Public Information Act mandates access to government documents "without unnecessary cost or delay" but gives officials 30 days to respond to requests for documents.

City Paper contacted city and state officials to find out what they're doing about John Elder, a licensed engineer with multiple felony convictions and at least five building collapses under his belt. Over the past several years Elder has worked on dozens--possibly hundreds--of residential and commercial construction projects in Baltimore, many of which drew complaints from neighbors for unpermitted work and then more complaints that city inspectors and other officials allowed violations to continue. Baltimore Housing officials (other than Tillman) did not respond to City Paper's queries; the Maryland Board for Professional Engineers, which oversees professional engineering licenses, does not by law comment on pending cases.

During months of reporting for the original stories, city and state officials said that they knew nothing of Elder's criminal history, and little or nothing about any complaints or problems with his engineering work. John Cole, the city's superintendent of building inspections, signed every underpinning permit, attended every building collapse, arranged conferences with property owners, contractors, and Elder himself, and gave depositions in court cases involving Elder, but he would not say Elder's name to a reporter. "I'm removed from the names," Cole claimed in June, when asked if he had noticed any patterns involving those responsible of collapses. He did not return follow-up calls seeking clarification.

But City Paper's investigation was not the first time Cole and other city housing officials had heard complaints about Elder, or about selective enforcement of the zoning and building codes. Deborah Tempera, a Canton and Fells Point property owner and one of the city's most tenacious zoning activists, complained about Elder in writing not just to city housing officials and Kraft's office but also to the state Board for Professional Engineers more than two years ago.

"I got nowhere with them," Tempera says.

Her letter to the board, dated Feb. 12, 2004, is handwritten on legal paper. It describes problems with a home Elder drew plans for but lacks specific complaints. Instead it poses a question: "Does a structural engineer have any responsibilities when he stamps plans that are then submitted to obtain a permit in Balto. City?"

Tempera has complained to city building and zoning officials for more than two years about a cast of characters, including Elder, who she says have routinely built or demolished properties without proper permits. For her troubles, she says, she has been harassed by code-enforcement officers and ignored as a crank.

After fielding numerous complaints from Tempera, Councilman Kraft, whose district includes Canton and Fells Point, sent her a letter this spring telling her that he and his staff would no longer "expend any more resources attending to concerns of yours that the Permits and Code Enforcement and Zoning Enforcement officers have already looked into."

Tempera likened the situation to the fox guarding the henhouse.

Kraft says his staff is not set up to investigate matters much beyond asking the department heads to respond. "We have a tremendous demand for constituency service--there is only so much we can do," he says. "Ultimately, I guess the buck stops in the mayor's office."

Kraft says he has introduced four new city ordinances aimed at the problem. One would impose criminal penalties on those who violate stop-work orders or work without permits. Another would bar anyone who has been convicted of a criminal violation of the labor, environmental, building, or zoning laws from receiving city contracts. The other two would improve notification of meetings of the city planning board and the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals (BMZA). All await City Council action.

Kraft and Councilman Edward Reisinger (D-10th) have long complained about unpermitted work in their waterfront districts, Kraft says. Last fall they held an "investigative hearing" to explore ways to improve building and zoning enforcement. Kraft says understaffing at code enforcement is part of the problem, but a reluctance by the city's Department of Housing to use its most powerful tool has rankled as well.

"I tell them, make them tear them down," Kraft says. "You only have to do it a couple of times, and the word will get out: If you build without a permit, you have to tear it down. And they won't do it."

Kraft says he doesn't know why housing officials won't order demolition of unpermitted work. "Anything I say would be speculative," he says. "It's an extreme remedy."

Kraft acknowledges the frustration people feel when they see others getting away without following the rules, and he says Baltimore Housing and BMZA's habit of fining builders a few hundred dollars is ineffective. "When you're selling a house for half a million, and you fine someone $500, it's less then a nickel," Kraft says.

But Kraft does not buy into the theory that corruption is the best explanation. "There is a gut-level reaction from people who say, `They're on the take,'" he acknowledges. "And I'm not saying they're not on the take. But every time an inspection doesn't go the way I think it should, that does not mean a person is taking money from somebody."

Meanwhile, in Dittmar's neighborhood, the concrete block walls are finished (although visibly not plumb or level) at 234 S. Chester St., and the workers returned on Aug. 9 and continued building, neighbors say.

A man calling himself Rob is working on the property on Aug. 14; he will not give his last name to a reporter over the phone. Rob claims he has been a mason for 15 years but is not licensed by the Maryland Home Improvement Commission. "What do I need a license for?" he asks. "I just work for my boss."

His boss' name is Jose, Rob says, but he doesn't know Jose's last name, and he refuses to divulge the name of Jose's company.

A man who gives his name as John Ett then takes the phone and says his company's name is Big Dog Communications, though he adds "we go by several names." Asked why his neighbors say his workers tore down stop-work orders, Ett says "the neighbors only see what's going on on the job, they don't see what's going on downtown." He says his company pulled all the proper permits after paying $2,000 in fines to the city. Asked for a description of the job from the permits, Ett says he has to get back to work and hangs up the phone.

"I'm not going to let them get away without having a permit," says Dittmar, standing on his stifling hot front stoop on a recent evening. He claims he was harassed "because I don't know anyone downtown and I won't grease anyone's palms."

Dittmar admits he has no evidence of payoffs, but the situation, he says, "speaks for itself."

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