Junk Cars Spur Town Reaction
Edgartown Cites the Hall Family For Zoning and Health Code Violations; Officials Hope Will Lead to Final Cleanup
By MANDY LOCKE
Eight months after a dangerous brush fire pushed cleanup of an illegal car dump to the top of Edgartown's priority list, officials finally lost patience with the property owners - formally citing the Benjamin Hall Sr. family this week for flagrant zoning and health code violations.
The measure sets the stage for formal charges against the Halls in Superior Court in the coming weeks. Town leaders hope the court appearance will result in a binding timeline for complete removal of 90 cars continuing to litter the 60-acre property known as Hallgate and Kingswood.
"Ultimately the town is not in the business of levying fines, it's in the business of getting compliance with state and local regulations. We haven't had desired results, so we've been forced to this point," said Matthew Poole, Edgartown health agent, referring to a letter sent Tuesday to the Halls, citing them with nuisance violations as well as infractions of local trash and waste regulations.
"Based on the sheer number and volume of debris, there must be [environmental] risk. It hasn't yet been quantified," Mr. Poole said.
Another citation letter from the building inspector's office accompanied that of Mr. Poole - a formal violation notice of town zoning which allows only one unregistered vehicle on private properties.
"Getting rid of junk cars is a problem. The manner in which they were doing it was a good method, it just wasn't going fast enough," said Edgartown zoning inspector Lenny Jason.
Failure by the Halls to rid their property of dead vehicles could ultimately place cleanup responsibilities squarely on the shoulders of the town - a last-resort measure officials have debated since last fall.
The saga of Hallgate - which stretches back more than three years - tells the story of a family complaining they are host to the Island's trash; a neighbor who is supplementing his small auto-body shop business by dragging dead cars to the private property; and Mr. Jason - the town zoning inspector - who not only himself owns one of the 90 cars still rotting in Hallgate but also in his official capacity ordered the disposal of a dozen other vehicles onto the property.
This new attempt to force cleanup of the dumping ground comes after two broken deadlines - failed attempts by the Halls to transport the dilapidated automobiles off the unbuilt subdivisions. By late November, the first deadline for complete removal of more than 170 cars, the Halls managed to remove 30 cars - saying that manpower shortages, a lack of boat reservations and poor weather stymied efforts. An extension request bought the property owners 60 more days and the departure of 50 more cars.
Rotting vehicles continue to line the dirt drive running through the wooded property - though they no longer nudge up against the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven road. Just beyond the drive's first curve, 50 yards into the property, dilapidated vehicles and random appliances clutter the lane. Some of the vehicles have been in Hallgate so long tree limbs extend through broken windshields.
The property owners, Benjamin Hall, Jr. said yesterday, have shoveled nearly $10,000 into the clean-up effort.
"This is far more money than we can allocate to this," Mr. Hall, Jr. said.
This unofficial graveyard for junked autos has been on the town's radar screen for well over three years. Alerts first arrived from police chief Paul Condlin, who predicted a logistical nightmare for police and fire trucks trying to access the property.
In February 2002 only 33 cars littered the property. But the mess continued to grow. The count reached 100 by March. By late last summer, 172 vehicles clogged the narrow dirt drive cutting through the wooded property - preventing fire trucks, on a sweltering August day, from reaching a burning heap of junkers a mile deep in the property.
The Hall property - it has 32 lots suitable for building, approved by the planning board and Martha's Vineyard Commission in 1986 - has a neighbor who's been pocketing money from this junkyard. Pat Kelly, a mechanic who abuts Hallgate, admits he collects $200 a pop for helping customers get rid of dead cars. He strips the vehicles of any usable parts, drains them of oil and hauls them into his neighbor's vacant land. He says he was granted permission to do so.
But Mr. Kelly and the Halls disagree on the nature of their arrangement.
"Town is trying to hold us responsible, and somehow insist that we are participants. Pat Kelly - the genesis of this problem - continues to take cars, and we believe, he continues to shove them over [onto our property.] It's clear someone's trying to push them onto our property," Mr. Hall, Jr. said.
Even the town joined Mr. Kelly's illegal business. Zoning inspector Jason ordered the dumping of about a dozen cars - which littered the private properties of townspeople the zoning inspector said could never afford to pay disposal costs - to the Hall property. The town, Mr. Jason said, footed the bill for one truckload of vehicles. Some of those dozen vehicles the town ordered to be taken on the Halls' land remain, Mr. Jason said.
"The town itself has put cars on the property. To say they have no responsibility is really amoral," Mr. Hall, Jr. said.
Since 2000, Mr. Hall, Sr. twice requested the police department investigate the illegal abandonment of junk cars on his Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road property. Just a week into both investigations, Mr. Hall, Sr. revoked his formal charges, Chief Condlin said, saying the request had been a misunderstanding.
Furthermore, the town's involvement in the Hallgate mess made investigating the property awkward for the local police chief.
"State law says that [the police department] must investigate operations of illegal junkyards," Chief Condlin said. "But when the building inspector placed those cars on the property, he put the police department in an awkward situation."
The awkwardness was further heightened last summer, when an officer tracked the ownership of a 1986 Isuzu Trooper in Hallgate back to Mr. Jason himself. Mr. Jason said that he paid Kippy Gasper of Pilgrim Auto to get rid of his dead car. The Trooper ended up in Hallgate, where it remained this week.
Edgartown police Chief Condlin said last week, gathered enough evidence during their spurts of investigation to know that the story of how nearly 200 cars came to rot in Hallgate seems to be colored in shades of gray.
The cars littering the 60-acre private property bore too many identifying clues to be the work of those hiding the crime of illegally abandoning cars, the chief said. Beach passes clung to shattered windshields. License plates hung from rusted bumpers. Family photos and registration cards could be seen in the trunks and floorboards of some cars. Many vehicles were stacked three deep - the work of a front-end loader.
The police chief conferred with special town counsel John M. Collins of Shrewsbury, who advised the local department to request the district attorney order a third-party investigation.
"We didn't want to be in potential conflict of interest," Chief Condlin said, explaining that he didn't want officers to be investigating fellow town employees.
Last fall, the district attorney's office placed unanswered questions - ranging from who collected money for the cars to the extent of involvement in Hallgate by town employees - into the lap of State Police Sgt. Jeff Stone.
Sergeant Stone, who works out of the state police barracks in Oak Bluffs, closed the investigation this month, recommending no criminal charges result from the Hallgate mess.
"In terms of criminal negligence on behalf of the property owner or the building inspector, there's not any, from what I gathered. Zoning infractions, that's another question," said Sgt. Stone.
Formal citations delivered to the Hall family this week could carry steep fines. The unregistered vehicle zoning bylaw alone would warrant fines of $50 per car per day. Non-compliance of health regulations could tack on an additional $1,000 each day.
If the town had been levying fines for zoning and health regulations since February of 2001, when the police department completed an inventory of 73 cars, the Halls would owe in excess of $4.5 million.
"Do you call removal of 70 cars progress? Obviously the town is not satisfied with the progress, that's why we're taking it to the next level,"Mr. Poole said.