Germantown spite-blight defendant: 'These people won't even let me die in peace'
September 11, 2012By Amy Z. Quinn for NewsWorks
"It just seems to me I'm pissing away a great deal of money while I'm being raped and robbed here."
-- Anthony R. Byrne, Germantown property owner, to Municipal Court Judge Bradley K. Moss
"We've given Mr. Byrne time. I'm not particularly in favor of giving one more day. We would like to see what else we can do, and what other remedies we can take."
-- Cindy Bass, City Councilwoman, eighth district
The owner of the vacant, derelict house at the center of a long-running blight dispute in Germantown told NewsWorks he is the victim of a decades-long conspiracy on the part of his neighbors — and now the city — to wrest his house from him.
And, Anthony R. Byrne of Wyndmoor said he has no intention of paying the two years' worth of back taxes on the boarded-up stone mini-mansion at 5357 Knox St.
"If the city won't let me live in my house, why should I keep current on the taxes," the frail but feisty Byrne, 80, said in an interview ahead of a court hearing Tuesday.
He currently owes $6,729.48 dating to 2010, has narrowly avoided two previous sheriff's sales and said he's been the subject of unwarranted harassment from his neighbors and the Department of Licenses and Inspection.
Tuesday's court date was for Municipal Court Judge Bradley K. Moss to consider attorney Denise Kuestner's motion to quit representing Byrne in a suit brought against him by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
The house, and another attached house where outspoken neighbor Julie Baranauskas lives, were both put on the city's historic register in 1966.
Byrne maintained he fired Kuestner back in April. The two have had no communication since then and Byrne angrily rebuffed the lawyer in court when she tried to speak to him privately.
"In fact, he has told me he does not want me to representing him anymore," Kuestner said to the judge.
Byrne told the judge he has had enough of lawyers and their "unconscionable" bills, but also said he supposed he'd find a new one.
"It just seems to me I'm pissing away a great deal of money while I'm being raped and robbed here," Byrne told the judge.
At the end of the hour-long hearing, however, Kuestner was still technically on the case: Moss gave Byrne two more weeks to either find a new lawyer or decide to represent himself.
Repair update required
Also by the next hearing, set for Sept. 27, the judge said he wants to see progress on getting a contractor to begin work on exterior woodwork, including dormers — repairs the judge ordered back in April.
Byrne said he paid Murray Construction to do some of the work, though his business relationship with the contractor was later severed over contract disagreements.
Another contractor was scared off the property by signs saying trespassers would be subject to fines, Byrne said. He also said he couldn't keep up with the grass-cutting at the house because the lawnmower is sealed away in the basement.
The judge said he would issue a written order specifying that despite the city's clean-and-seal of the vacant property, Byrne and workers hired by him were allowed on the site.
More actions sought by city
Ed Jefferson, the city's attorney, asked the judge to threaten more specific sanctions against Byrne if his orders weren't followed, but the judge was more conciliatory.
"I'm not going to hold it against you that you haven't had the work done, with these other issues," Moss told Byrne.
In the end, it was two incremental moves in a case that has stretched over more than a dozen court dates, frustrating neighbors who say the house is a singular blemish in one of Germantown's best areas.
Eighth Distict City Councilwoman Cindy Bass appeared at the hearing, telling the judge her office would continue to pursue other avenues against the property owner.
"We've given Mr. Byrne time, I'm not particularly in favor of giving one more day," Bass said. "We would like to see what else we can do, and what other remedies we can take."
Over the course of the case, filed in Dec. 2010, some work has been done, under specific orders from Moss. A stone wall in the porch area was replaced, a shed was removed, and decking was restored, said L&I inspector Norman Mason.
Byrne said the stress of the situation has aggravated a list of medical conditions including congestive heart failure, arthritis and diabetes. He walked with a cane into court and, at one point, asked the judge if he could leave court "on a stretcher."
Neighbors said Byrne's actions were typical of his ability to keep stringing them, and now the court, along without ever really addressing the overall condition of the vacant property.
Byrne told NewsWorks it's his intention and desire to live in the house again, but that he'd been driven from Knox Street by his neighbors.
"I feel I am the victim of these people who are trying to steal my property from me," he said. "These people won't even let me die in peace."