Germantown’s spite-blight case finally comes to a legal end

The city’s latest legal case against the elderly owner of a Germantown home involved in a long-running dispute with neighbors came to a quiet end in court, but not a lot has changed for the house at 5357 Knox St.

At the end of years of complaints, fines, sporadic work on the house and many, many hearings, Judge Bradley Moss imposed more fines on Anthony R. Byrne, and then closed this chapter in the saga, a case brought against him by the city Historical Commission in 2010.

A long, winding road

There have been other court cases over the years, for unpaid bills and taxes and building standards violations, stretching back more than a decade.

After each court appearance in the latest case, next-door neighbor Julie Baranauskas would faithfully update a group of neighbors, reporters and local officials about the goings-on. She documented Byrne’s no-shows, his lengthy back-and-forth exchanges with the judge, and the court’s largely unsuccessful attempts to bring him in line.

When it was over, she left City Hall to return to her own house, next door to Byrne’s empty one.

“I don’t know where it’s going now,” she said. “Visually, it hasn’t changed a whole lot since three years ago.”

What progress?

The case wasn’t a total failure — the taxes are current and Byrne did make some substantial court-ordered repairs to the roof, some windows and what’s left of the porch — but in the aggregate, the closing of the case leaves Byrne, Baranauskas and the neighbors in Penn-Knox in roughly the same place they started.

By summer, she predicts, workers from the Department of Licenses and Inspections will be out cutting grass and clearing the sidewalk again. She also wonders if the city won’t now pursue demolition of the house anyway, after fighting for three years to see repairs made.

For his part, Byrne has repeatedly claimed he is the target of years of harassment by his neighbors, whom he has accused of trying to hound him to the grave. He has fought efforts by the Department of Licenses and Inspections to have a structural report done on the property.

Legal talk

L&I has referred questions about the property to the Law Department.

Chief Deputy Solicitor Andrew Ross said while the Historical Commission may choose to bring additional violations, as of right now, the case is closed.

The house does not appear to have a current vacant property license, though some previous L&I violations for having unsecured doors and windows were satisfied.

Reflecting

Don’t get Baranauskas wrong: She understands that in a city where whole blocks are mottled with plywood-covered windows and doors, one vacant house with one derelict property owner in her otherwise stable Penn-Knox neighborhood isn’t the biggest problem.

And yet, she wonders, should the problem of one neighborhood trying to deal with one bad neighbor be so impossible to resolve?

“The whole neighborhood could have been rebuilt with what’s been spent there,” she said.

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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