L&I cleans up Germantown spite-blight property for the 11th time

 The source of ongoing neighborhood friction, the city just spruced 5357 Knox St. up for what it hopes is the last time. (Neema Roshania/WHYY)

The source of ongoing neighborhood friction, the city just spruced 5357 Knox St. up for what it hopes is the last time. (Neema Roshania/WHYY)

For the neighbors in Germantown — and in the spirit of the season — this is the ongoing story of the “Nightmare on Knox Street.”

Earlier this month, a crew from the Department of Licenses & Inspections cleaned and sealed up the late-19th century house at 5357 Knox St.

It was the 11th time the city performed such work on the house.

Never-ending battle

There have been more than 20 court hearings since 2008 involving the property and its owner, according to the next-door neighbor.

In the most recent legal proceeding, a municipal court judge last summer fined the owner more than $36,000 for building-code violations.

The recent case brought by the city against the homeowner, Anthony Byrne, began with inspections in 2009, when he was cited for a wide variety of property maintenance violations, said Rebecca Corcoran Swanson, communications and policy officer for L&I.

In 2011, the property was designated unsafe because of structural issues.

Because the house was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1966 — it was built in 1871 and owned by Francis and Thomas Cope, members of the prominent merchant family — alteration of the exterior of the house must be approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Recent moves

So, the Commission led the most recent, two-year attempt to improve the property, and achieved some success, said PHC director Jonathan Farnham.

“The judge sought ways to bring the house into compliance” with the building code and PHC guidelines, “and when the owner didn’t follow them, he fined him,” he said.

The house at the corner of Knox and Coulter streets is now “generally stabilized. There were a series of successes as a result of the court case,” Farnham said.

The building, which had been filled with trash and debris, was completely cleaned out. Repairs were performed on the roof, which had been leaking into the property and the adjacent twin. Windows were secured, and masonry work stabilized the front porch.

“It’s certainly not pristine and not all aspects of the violations have been corrected,” Farnham said. “At this point, we are considering the case closed, but that doesn’t preclude new violations in the future if the condition of the building does deteriorate.”

Costs and liens

When there are concerns about a property raised by neighbors, it is L&I that comes out to take a look.

If there are structural problems with a building, L&I inspectors determine if the situation is either unsafe or imminently dangerous.

If it’s the latter, “those are the ones we demolish,” explained L&I’s Swanson. If the building is deemed unsafe but not imminently dangerous, as in Byrne’s case, “we monitor it and take the owner to court if necessary.”

During the course of the most recent court case against Byrne, he transferred ownership to his daughter Deirdre, but signing the house over to her does not impact the code violations, Swanson said.

L&I currently has an open case against the owner for not having a vacant property license, and the department sent the violation notification to Deirdre Byrne.

The city’s costs for performing the abatement work — the cleaning of the yard and sealing of windows and doors — also go to the owner of the property. There have been 10 liens placed against the property, totaling about $18,000, and those liens “run with the property,” whoever owns it, Swanson said.

L&I responds to every request from neighbors who are worried about the house and its impact on their homes, she also said.

“L&I does abatement work around public safety hazards,” said Swanson, “but we’re not keeping up the man’s property for him. We don’t fix up old houses.”

Byrne has paid his property taxes, “so he can’t be forced to sell the house at a sheriff’s sale for a tax balance, because there isn’t one,” Swanson said. “We do appreciate the frustration of the neighbors.

“It’s the owner’s responsibility to maintain his property in compliance with the property maintenance code, and the former and current owners have failed to do so. There’s nothing else we can do, but we will continue to monitor. If the structural issues get worse, we will monitor those.”

Neighborhood reaction

Attempts to reach Anthony Byrne, who lives in Wyndmoor, or his daughter Deirdre for comment were unsuccessful.

The residents of the Penn-Knox neighborhood have been talking about the situation for a long time.

Julie Baranauskas lives at 5355 Knox St., the twin home connected to Byrne’s vacant property.

“I’ve lived here 17 years, and when I moved in, Martha Stewart had never been by,” Baranauskas said, alluding to the perpetual tidying up at the property. “But, this is Germantown, and we have a tolerance. We’re friendly. We don’t tell you how to live.”

Many of the residents of Penn-Knox live in historically certified houses.

“Nobody wants to live in a historic museum,” she said, “but we are respectful of the history that goes with it.”

Byrne’s neglect of his property, when he initially lived there and since he’s moved on, has had a direct impact on her property.

About 10 years ago, he turned on the water in the unheated building and the third-floor pipes burst, flooding her home and leading to the growth of mold throughout her house. Forced to move out for four months during the cleanup, she sued Byrne for the approximately $60,000 in property damage.

There have been numerous leaks from Byrne’s roof as well, and Baranauskas now has a moisture meter in her home to monitor any water that enters her house. Her most recent fears are about the potential for fire in her neighbor’s building.

A Coulter Street neighbor, Barry Levine, has seen Byrne bring dozens of garbage bags and boxes filled with paper and debris into the house.

Another neighbor, Pedro Rodriguez, calls the Byrne house “the biggest disgrace to any attempt by the city to remove blight.”

There has been interest from various parties to purchase the property, Baranauskas said, but when Byrne is asked to sell, “his answer is, ‘It’s not enough.'”

Baranauskas said she and her neighbors have the skills and resources to stabilize the house at 5357 Knox St.

“Quite frankly, we could probably flip this in 24 hours,” she said, noting that the area is increasingly desirable on the real-estate market.

While she appreciates the responsiveness of L&I and the Historical Commission’s court battle, Baranauskas said something more needs to be done.

“I’m as much a supporter of individual property law as anybody else,” she said, “but at some point, if somebody else’s effect is to pull down a neighborhood, I mean, who wouldn’t say this could be better?”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at alanjaffe@mac.com.

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