TAKING ON A DUMP: A neighbor has been complaining about the 1100 block of South 24th Street, but she hasn’t seen results.
The rowhouse Erika Rose’s family owns at the corner of 24th and Ellsworth streets, the last one remaining on its block in Point Breeze, stands like a lighthouse looking out over a sea of garbage. Trucks regularly dump trash into the large, fenced-off lot next door, which brims with construction debris: bricks and cinder blocks, blue storage drums and a weed-covered mountain of fill nearly two stories high. Adding to the insult, an entire semi-trailer, full of more detritus, leans like a beached whale near Rose’s property line.
Rose regards the filthy land less poetically. “It is being used as a dumping ground,” she says.
It’s illegal to create a dump on the residentially zoned land without special permission, but it’s also shockingly easy to get away with. Rose has filed multiple complaints with the city since 2010, but that hasn’t helped.
It would seem Rose has an open-and-shut case, since she’s known for years that one man, a South Philadelphia-based demolition contractor named Donald Plummer, is behind the dumping, and that he’s ostensibly trespassing. Plummer doesn’t own a single one of the six contiguous lots he’s using as a private junkyard. And some of the parcels’ various owners — there are five, including Claudia Sherrod, the influential executive director at South Philly HOMES Inc., an economic development nonprofit in Point Breeze — claim Plummer is acting without their consent.
Yet Plummer has been dumping trash there for the better part of a decade. Despite having no official claim over the land, he used 1109 S. 24th St. to register his demolition company, DD Fox Construction, with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections. That particular address falls somewhere between the northern slope and the summit of the dirt mountain. A rusty mailbox reading “1109” hangs from a chain-link fence that was also installed by Plummer, apparently without permission.
A recent visit to the site revealed that Plummer’s crew was in the midst of clearing out part of a crumbling building just down the street and dumping its guts into the trash pit. A man shuttling mounds of debris into the back of a pickup truck refused to identify his employer, then quickly packed up and left the site. Plummer did not respond to repeated phone calls.
So, how did one man get away with using five people’s land as a garbage dump? It was simple, to hear Sherrod tell it.
“I did everything I could,” says Sherrod, who purchased 1113 S. 24th St. from the nonprofit Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation seven years ago. “When I bought my property over there, PHDC sent him [Plummer] a letter.”
Later, Sherrod says, she complained to L&I and the police without success. “I did try to have them remove the stuff, but it hasn’t, as you can see, been removed.” Sherrod, who was a panelist in a 2010 roundtable discussion about combating blight in Point Breeze, also acknowledges the police and L&I have “no records” of her complaints. She says she doesn’t know why that is.
L&I spokesperson Rebecca Swanson confirms there’s no record of complaints from Sherrod and says she’s not sure how Plummer could dump on Sherrod’s land without Sherrod’s consent. “If someone goes and puts up a fence, that’s trespassing. My sense is, that’s a criminal offense,” she says.
There is a record, however, of Rose’s complaints. But Swanson says that the complaints were automatically referred to the Community Life Improvement Program (CLIP), a neighborhood cleanup program. CLIP doesn’t have the authority to bypass fencing to remove the trash, so it could not clean the lots. CLIP did log complaints against each individual lot owner, including Sherrod, for trash and failure to obtain vacant lot licenses. But rather than appeal the complaint and call out Plummer for the dumping, Sherrod did nothing. The complaints against Sherrod and the other lot owners are still outstanding, and the lots remained unlicensed.
Sherrod says she wants to sell her land. She alludes to a plan to clean up and develop the entire site in the near future. Indeed, three of the lots, including Sherrod’s, have been listed for sale since the beginning of the year, at $100,000 apiece. Sherrod also references a “new owner” who is going to stop Plummer’s dumping, but declines to name the individual.
The only lot that has changed hands in the last decade is now owned by a 401(k) plan registered to the Richboro, Pa., home of Vitaliy Polyachenko, who says he is indeed interested in developing his newly purchased lot.
But Polyachenko’s explanations only raise more questions. Reached by phone, he initially said that he wished the dumping would stop. Later he revealed that he had actually hired Plummer in the past for contracting work and that they were in regular contact. He disputed Sherrod’s suggestion that there were any immediate plans to develop the lots or to put an end to the trash.
“I met [Plummer] several times and spoke with him,” Polyachenko says. “He says, ‘Well, no one else complained, and I’m doing some work for the city.’ So what can I do?”
Though DD Fox Construction is a licensed contractor, L&I officials say it has not been approved for municipal contracting work.
Polyachenko says, “I’ve only owned the lot for a few months, but Claudia and these other guys owned theirs for six or seven years and they never complained.”
Records indicate that two of the other lot owners may be deceased; one of them has been tax delinquent for more than 20 years and has dozens of liens against the parcel. Polyachenko says that the only other living deed holders he has encountered, the owners of nearby granite company CAVA International, are OK with the dumping. CAVA’s owners did not respond to requests for comment.
Polyachenko says he hasn’t tried to stop the dumping on his lot — yet. “I just never put any legal force into it, because I’m not planning to do anything with that lot tomorrow,” he says. “As for Sherrod and the others? Maybe they have been in some kind of agreement or they don’t care, I don’t know. Claudia has some power. I don’t know why she didn’t move him out.”
L&I is now monitoring the lot for continued dumping. But, unless the property owners come forward to complain or L&I happens to catch Plummer’s crew in the act, Rose could be waiting a long time for a cleanup. Since one of the lots is tax delinquent, sheriff’s sale would be an option; but the sheriff’s sale process is, these days, a slow one. L&I referred the case to the city Law Department last August. But that case was against an owner of one of the lots, not Plummer, because no trespassing complaints had been recorded. In the end, that action was indefinitely delayed because of “staffing constraints” at the Law Department and the “non-dangerous” nature of the complaint, Swanson says.
All this raises a question: In a city where abandoned properties abound and enforcers can’t keep up, what’s to stop any rogue contractor from turning any piece of vacant land into their private, fenced-in garbage dump? As Rose’s predicament shows, there’s not much to stand in their way.
Contract reflects ed-reform group's rise to power in Philly
When Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Sylvia Simms to the School Reform Commission (SRC) in January,...
Terms of victory in new land bank bill
On Tuesday afternoon, Council President Darrell Clarke celebrated with a corps of community leaders...
Council Prez organizing community groups to scuttle land bank bill
UPDATE: Inquirer City Council reporter Claudia Vargas is now reporting a compromise has been...