One man's treasure is another's trash
For the first time in nearly three years of dealing with an alleged code violation on his property along the Amity-Dayton Highway, Earl Lawson, 63, was finally able to report some initial progress at a Thursday meeting of the county commissioners.
“We were all glad to hear some progress has been made,” said Mike Kemper, the county’s code enforcement officer. “Three trailer loads was more than I expected, so that was good to hear.
“We want to see him do it on his own. Nobody wants to be in the position of having to hire a company to clean it up. That’s not good for anybody.”
That seemed to be the direction things were headed after county’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee reached an impasse with Lawson and passed the matter to commissioners.
Lawson has already been cited twice into circuit court for accumulating excessive amounts of junk and trash on his property, and the board was prepared to send him for a third round. It was also prepared to commission a cleanup and seek reimbursement by filing a lien against his property, payable on sale.
However, in light of his recent cleanup effort, the board decided to continue working with him, for which Lawson expressed appreciation.
“I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” he said.
Kemper presented Lawson with a list of items the county wants removed by March 27, including piles of scrap lumber and scrap metal, stacks of wooden pallets, a big screen TV and a set of used exercise equipment. When those items are gone, it will give him another list to work on, Kemper said.
Kemper said he should be able to earn a return on the scrap metal, which should help him manage some of the rest of the project.
Lawson has a history of health challenges, car accidents and well-intentioned but ultimately failed cleanup efforts.
Complicating matters, he serves as a full-time caretaker for his 91-year-old mother, who lives in Dallas. So even though he considers himself a legal resident of the property, he doesn’t actually spend much time on it.
Commissioner Allen Springer acknowledged the challenges and extended his sympathies, but said it’s time for action. “When a gift is given, I recommend you open it,” he said.
One matter remaining in contention is a 1969 mobile home the county considers solid waste and Lawson believes is a $15,000 asset. The parties have agreed that Lawson will obtain reports from a state-licensed general contractor and state-licensed electrician on what it would take to return the unit to habitability and share them with commissioners.
Cases like Lawson’s are infrequent but not unprecedented.
“Most of the time, the person has fallen on hard times, and it does cost money to haul trash off your property,” said County Counsel Rick Sanai. “They become overwhelmed, so we work with people to remove the junk.
“The vast majority of people are grateful. They are happy we helped.”
Sanai said the county’s code enforcement officer doesn’t drive around looking for properties to cite. He simply responds to complaints, and Lawson has generated plenty.
He explained, “So much of his junk is visible. This is what people see. It’s unsightly, ugly and irritating to neighbors.”
An even bigger concern for the county, Sanai said, is the fact Lawson has amassed a quantity of motor oil, which could seriously pollute the local water table.
Lawson cites his caretaker role in Dallas as the biggest stumbling block. He said it takes 90 percent of his time and all of his energy.
“If you’ve never taken care of an elderly parent, you just can’t understand,” he told the Solid Waste Advisory Committee last month. “I’ve had my hands full.
“I am totally willing to straighten this mess out. I just don’t think you understand the immense psychological pressure on my mother and me.”
Member Tex Rhodes responded much as Springer did Thursday.
“We have compassion for your situation,” he said. “We have no reason to think you’re dishonest. We just don’t think you’re making progress.”
In a similar case in Dayton, the county eventually commissioned a commercial cleanup and billing property owner Harold Bloom. So there is precedent, when all else fails.
“We tried to work with Mr. Bloom, but we eventually had to get an order to clean his property up,” Sanai said.
The county had 107 vehicles, more than a dozen 30-yard drop boxes of trash and a large collection of tires removed, according to Solid Waste Analyst Sherrie Mathison. She said Bloom was billed $9,315 for the work.