Monday, August 20, 2007
Stubborn Old Man Likes Trash
Trashed houses land man in jail
City loses patience over building code violations
Dan Horn, Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati building inspectors say they tried to reason with Ron Brown.
They visited the 70-year-old Westwood man dozens of times over the years and asked him to clean up the trash, car parts, weeds and rusting lawn mowers that littered his McHenry Avenue properties.
They offered to help haul the junk away, they wrote more than 50 citations warning him to clear his property and, finally, they took him to court.
So when Brown went back to Hamilton County's housing court Friday, the judge decided to try something new: He sent Brown to jail.
"It's an absolute last resort," said Judge Russell Mock. "But eventually, there has to be a deterrent."
Brown's 170-day jail sentence - a rarity in housing court - is the latest chapter in a long, strange fight between the city and one of the most prolific building code violators in town.
Neighbors have complained about Brown's properties for nearly a decade and city records show citations for litter, debris, abandoned vehicles and other violations dating back to at least 2002.
"It was beyond normal stuff. It was almost like an open junkyard," said Randy Hammann, a member of the Westwood Concern neighborhood group. "It's not something most normal neighbors would look out their kitchen windows and see."
Building inspectors say Brown allowed the junk to accumulate on four of his properties: 3031, 3035 and 3041 McHenry Ave. and 2195 Harrison Ave.
Despite many warnings, city officials say, Brown refused to clean up. He often argued with city officials about the citations and was accused two months ago of threatening an inspector on his property with a metal pipe.
"This gentleman has had ample opportunity to clean his act up," said William Langevin, director of the city Department of Buildings and Inspections. "We've all lost our patience." He said no one wanted to see a 70-year-old man go to jail, but frustration with Brown's inaction had reached a boiling point.
Mock said he repeatedly warned Brown jail was a possibility. The judge even sent Brown to jail for 10 days earlier this year and told him he could avoid serving the full 180-day sentence if he made an effort to improve his properties.
He said some property owners in housing court don't have the money or physical ability to comply with the city's orders, but that's not the case with Brown. "I gave him another chance and he just refused to do it," Mock said. "He chooses not to do it."
Brown's lawyer declined to comment Friday.
Frustrated neighbors have demanded for years that the city do something about Brown's properties.
"This is the stuff we need to crack down on, the basic quality-of-life things," said Mary Kuhl, a member of Westwood Concern who lives near Brown's Harrison Avenue property.
"You can cite everybody until the cows come home; but if you never follow up, then you get what you got with Ron Brown."
Langevin said the city did as much as it could, but uncertainty about ownership of the properties held up enforcement for several years.
He said many of the properties remain in the name of Brown's deceased mother and, until a recent court hearing, Brown denied responsibility for maintaining them.
Once he accepted responsibility, Langevin said, the city could take action.
The city has since demolished the house at 3041 McHenry and has gone to court to do the same to the house at 3031 McHenry. Brown lives at 3035 McHenry.
Mock could let Brown out of jail before the end of his 170-day sentence, but that's likely to happen only if he promises to clean up his property.
Langevin said he hopes Brown gets out soon and starts following the rules.
But he's not convinced even a stint in jail will do the trick.
"Mr. Brown," he said, "is a very stubborn individual."