After nearly 20 years of focusing on safety problems and code violations at a condemned, crumbling town house, the city of Frederick is closer to the finish line.
Frederick County Circuit Judge Theresa M. Adams on Wednesday upheld the city Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to allow demolition of the structurally unsound rear wing of 20 W. Fourth St., a brick building now owned by the city. Former property owner Allan Pickett appealed the HPC’s January vote, arguing that the commission violated several procedural rules.
Specifically, William L. Haugh Jr., Pickett’s attorney, challenged the following aspects of the hearing and vote through which the commission approved the city’s demolition request:
• The procedural requirements, including the number of days of published notice for the public hearing and the voting eligibility of HPC members.
• Pickett’s inability to cross-examine or rebut HPC findings under due process.
• The decision was based on speculation, not facts and evidence.
• The HPC had no right to vote on demolishing the building while the ownership of the property was still disputed through a separate case in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
The court rejected all four arguments, concluding that the HPC approval stands.
The decision comes after an opinion last month from the Court of Special Appeals, in which the three-judge panel upheld the city’s right to foreclose on Pickett’s ability to redeem his property. Pickett failed to pay taxes and satisfy property liens necessary to take back his home at tax sale, The News-Post previously reported.
Pickett can appeal both recent court decisions. Once the appeals court issues a mandate for its opinion, a 30-day window starts for Pickett to appeal the decision to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. The Court of Appeals chooses which cases to hear, so a request might be denied.
Pickett may also appeal the Circuit Court affirmation of the HPC decision within 30 days. He can also file a motion asking the court to reconsider the case, which means the 30-day deadline may be delayed, according to Scott Waxter, an assistant city attorney.
Waxter declined to comment on the Circuit Court opinion, which he had not read. Haugh also said he didn’t want to comment on an appeal of the decision until he had read the opinion and spoken with Pickett.
In an emailed comment, Mayor Randy McClement wrote, “We are pleased with this decision by the circuit court and investigating all of our options to move forward.”
Nikki Bamonti, executive assistant to the mayor, told The News-Post previously that no money had been set aside for the requested demolition of the rear addition. She confirmed Thursday that was still the case.
“We’ve been through so much litigation to get to this step that we haven’t really considered or discussed all the options for moving forward,” Bamonti said.
Instead of paying for the demolition, which initial estimates put at $100,000, Bamonti said the city could sell the property on the condition that the new owner take care of the demolition. Alternatively, the city could pay for the demolition and additional rehabilitation work before selling it. Bamonti said further improvements would be “highly unlikely” given that the city doesn’t have funding for them.
The house at 20 W. Fourth St. was built in 1865, according to state property tax records. Pickett bought the property for $41,000 in 1982, and lived there for one week before renting it out, according to court records.
The city condemned the property in 1996 after Frederick police and officials found the building open and unsecured, filled with trash and feces. There was also evidence of fires.
It then tried to sell the property at a tax sale in 2004 but was unsuccessful after the prospective buyer backed out after several years of legal challenges from Pickett. After a second tax sale in 2011 yielded no offers, the city paid to have the tax certificate assigned to it.
The site was identified on the city’s blighted property and property watch list released in June 2014. Although some of the 30 original properties have since been removed from the list once the violations were addressed, the town house has not because the city was waiting on the decisions from pending litigation, according to Bamonti.
Although the property has no open code violations, it is still condemned by the city building department, The News-Post previously reported. Once the rear addition is demolished, the condemnation will be lifted.
Other maintenance issues at the property, however, must be addressed before it can be eligible to come off the list, Bamonti said. The city historically sets a one-year removal date for listed properties after all violations have been corrected. If any new violations are found during the one-year review, the process starts anew once those problems are corrected.