Germantown neighbors still awaiting resolution in long-running spite-blight case

Ask Julie Baranauskas about the situation with the vacant house next door to her in Penn-Knox, Germantown’s showcase residential neighborhood, and she’ll give you the old, “How much time have you got?”

Only there’s no sarcasm in her voice.

Baranauskas, her neighbors and the City have all been fighting for more than a decade to get the crumbling, empty house at 5357 Knox St. cleaned up, repaired, seized for unpaid taxes or sold by the owner — anything but what’s there now.

Hearing on Tuesday

On Tuesday, Baranauskas will attend what is, by her count, the 14th scheduled hearing in the city’s two-year-old lawsuit against the property owner, Anthony R. Byrne of Wyndmoor.

It’s part of a litany of actions she can tick off in a list: 11 years of litigation, 21 months of hearings, three previous L&I cases with about 30 hearings and two sheriff’s sales, none of which have kept up with the pace at which the house is deteriorating.

Baranauskas has lived next door to Byrne since 1996, the two houses sharing a wall and plenty of drama.

Byrne has owned the house since about 1982, and lived in it until about 2000. He told the Daily News he holds on to the house “to piss off” another neighbor with whom he has a long-running dispute.

So you’ll forgive Baranauskas if she’s not holding her breath waiting on a big break in the current case, which has been before Judge Bradley Moss since 2010, long before he was put in charge of the city’s new “blight court.”

Fines, letters to Fire Department and City Hall ineffective

Since January, Moss has imposed $15,000 in fines for broken windows, debris and noncompliance with previous court orders, and neighbors said some work has been done. In April, Byrne told the court he’d hired a construction company which began work that would be done in the fall.

Over the summer, the work stopped after the contractor quit the job over unpaid bills, and attorneys Henry Langsam and Denise Kuestner have petitioned the court to be taken off the case, citing non-payment. Kuestner did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

“It’s still a problem, it’s still a vacant property, it’s still derelict,” Baranauskas said last week. “Quite frankly, I’m afraid of fire.”

She and the Penn-Knox Neighborhood Association have written letters to Mayor Michael Nutter and to Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, which Baranauskas said have gone unanswered.

Because the house — which had a graceful and commanding wooden porch before it collapsed and was removed as part of a L&I action a decade ago — has been listed on the city’s historic register since 1966, the Historical Commission brought the current suit against Byrne.

Historical record

Jon Farnham, the Historical Commission’s director, was unavailable to talk about the case late last week, but there’s plenty in the record to tell the tale so far.

“The minutes from the [Historical Commission] meeting state that the houses, ‘reflect the affluence of the town and its people. The houses were large, in the best taste of the period, and some of them … has been designed by architects with a national reputation,'” according to the Historical Commission’s lawsuit, which alleges demolition by intentional neglect.

The L&I history for the 11-bedroom mini-mansion at 5357 Knox St. takes some time to scroll through, and the neighborhood version is even more dense, featuring squatters, rooms piled high with boxes of books and paperwork, a flood in 2003 that damaged Baranauskas’ house and a partially collapsed roof.

Then there’s the property tax bill, currently a $6,729.48 balance dating to 2010 — though Baranauskas said Byrne has been able to avoid two previous sheriff sales, in 2008 and 2009.

“[Byrne] has been in arrears on taxes since I have been tracking this, which is about 2004,” Baranauskas said. “He’s bulletproof. Nothing happens to him.”

‘A secluded niche for sexual activity and drug use’

Some of the work has been done, including repairing the stone knee-wall that surrounds the porch area, though Baranauskas said it’s now just “a secluded niche for sexual activity and drug use.” There is still construction debris on the site, and Baranauskas said neighbors often “mow the sidewalk” to keep some of the overgrowth at bay.

Since the first hearing on the case, on Feb. 3, 2011, there have been multiple status and motion hearings, fines levied (with threats of more) and dozens of orders to make repairs and clean the property out.

Still, after more than a 10 years of waiting and several visits by L&I workers to clean up some of Byrne’s mess at the city’s expense, Baranauskas said she’s not optimistic a resolution to the case will come anytime soon.

“The idea of having these infinity hearings, and encouraging Mr. Byrne to keep taking baby steps, is just not working,” she said.

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday in City Hall Courtroom 446.

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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