Prince George's County plan to raze Baber Village, a vacant federally subsidized low-income housing project, moved ahead another notch yesterday when a Circuit Court judge refused to block its demolition.
But Judge Albert T. Blackwell Jr. agreed to delay for 10 days signing his order permitting demolition, thus granting lawyers for the federal government and the local housing authority time to file appeals and seek further delays through the courts.
"Bulldozing Baber Village is an irrevocable act," said James J. Lombardi, the local housing authority lawyer. "There is no reason to destroy a structurally sound" project. "It makes no sense."
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which took over the project after its nonprofit developer defaulted on the mortgage, wants Baber Village rehabilitated for continued rental to low-income families. That decision clashes with the determination of County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. to eliminate concentrations of low-income housing from Prince George's.
The Seat Pleasant project has become a classic battleground between local and federal officials over the question of how and where to house the poor.
With executiion of a $120,000 wrecking contract awaiting only a judge's final order, the federal government has taken a beating both in the federal and state courts. Last Friday, a federal judge in Baltimore refused to stop the impending county action. Yesterday's three-hour court hearing in the County Circuit Court was triggered by the refusal of the HUD-funded housing authority to carry out the demolition, although the county has condemned the property.
Normally, when an owner fails to comply with a demolition order, the court routinely grants the county permission to proceed and then make a claim on the owner for the cost of demolition. Yesterday's hearing was not routine.
The county paraded an array of Prince George's housing and fire officials before the judge to make its case that the four remaining buildings of Baber Village and its 200 apartment units are unsafe, unsound and hazardous to community health. The official testimony was buttressed by statements from residents of peppermill Village, an adjoining subdivision in which most residents favor demolition.
The residents and experts spoke of uncollected trash, debris and poor drainage drawing mosquitos and rodents; apartment units stripped of wallboard, piping, appliances and electrical fixtures, and open windows and missing doors, despite repeated efforts to board such entryways.
"As it exists, it's open to arson," said David M Banwarth, county fire protection engineer. "It's a fire hazard."
"The structure is sound," said Arthur W. Brown, chief county building inspector, but he questioned whether its roofs were. "There is such extensive damage," said Thomas May Jr., supervisor of mechanical inspectors, "there is nothing left to be salvaged."
Salvage is precisely what HUD wants, at an estimated cost of up to $5 million. Earlier renovation plans had faltered over the cost, but this time Housing Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris has taken a personal interest in Baber Village.
HUD is so intent on making the project work, the judge was told, that the federal agency's Washington area office has mobilized a special nine-member team to expedite planning and construction. With this unusual assist, acting HUD area director Thomas R. Hobbs said, rehabilitation work could begin in four months.
"Baber Village could be a model project for the country," attorney Lombardi told the court. "It would be a tragedy to demolish four structures that can be rehabilitated satisfactorily."
The judge was not impressed. "The federal government doesn't persuade me it has a reasonable plan that warrants an extention of time," Blackwell said.
He did, however, grant Lombardi's last-minute request for a 10-day "cooling-off period," to see if some settlement could be reached with the county. Wayne Curry, an aide to County Executive Kelly, said after the court hearing the county is "not amenable to reconsider" the demolition but would be willing to discuss with HUD "subsequent plans" the county has for about 80 towns houses or a park on the site of Baber Village.