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Town prepares for battle in court over messy property

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TOWNSEND — No one wants the smell of rubbish in their home, or a dead goat in their yard.

Occasionally the Board of Health (BOH) will get a written complaint about a residence. To confirm the complaint, a Townsend Health Agent will drive pass the property to see if anything stands out.

If the complaint is confirmed, the board of contacts the resident.

“We’ve had a couple of issues where we’ve had to contact land owners, but a friendly letter is usually all it takes,” said BOH administrative assistant Kathleen Spofford.

After years of complaints, a property owned by Kevin Johnson on New Fitchburg Road is past the friendly letter stage. Instead, the letter written by the BOH is addressed to the Board of Selectmen.

“Our health agent has taken the owner of this property, Kevin Johnson, to the Worcester County Housing Court,” states the July 16 letter. “The Housing Court ordered the owner to comply with the Board of Health order by June 1, 2007. At this time, the property is still not in compliance with the housing codes and the owner is not in compliance. The next step would be to contact town counsel to bring contempt charges against the owner.”

Spofford said the BOH needs the guidance of the Board of Selectmen because the contempt lawsuit could incur significant cost as the case proceeds.

The court may hold the landowner responsible to cover the legal costs, or not, and the timing is also uncertain.

The possibility of contempt charges stems from a complaint received by the Board of Health on April 20, 2006.

A resident in the neighborhood listed rubbish and manure in the property’s backyard as their main complaint. Attached to the letter was a neighborhood petition calling for a clean-up and inspection of the property, signed by several residents.

Further complicating matters, the property has been inhabited by a tenant, “Mr. Perla,” throughout the history of complaints.

Townsend health agent Benjamin Cutone wrote that an inspection on May 8, 2006, confirmed the property was littered with refuse.

On May 18, 2006, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) visited a neighboring property to inspect a dead goat. The goat had been owned by Joseph Perla.

The MSPCA didn’t find any evidence that the goat had died from mistreatment, but did instruct Mr. Perla on the proper disposal of dead animals, said Spofford.

The goat incident further increased neighbors’ concerns and on May 23, the BOH issued an order to the property owner to eliminate violations. The listed violations included manure being dumped in wetlands and disposal of rubbish and refuse.

On June 14, the BOH issued a notice to the property owner saying that he had violated the initial order and a complaint would be filed in court. Johnson contacted the BOH when he received the notice and said the property would be cleaned by the end of summer. The BOH granted an extension to Aug. 30, 2006.

The BOH issued a new order on Sept. 12, after August had passed with no changes made.

It wasn’t until Feb. 9, 2007, that the Worcester Housing Court issued an order for the owner to comply with the BOH by March 9.

The issue returned to court on March 23, after an inspection by the Townsend health agent revealed the property owner had still not complied. The court ordered that if the property were not cleaned by June 1, the property owner would be fined $1,000 for every day in violation.

The Board of Selectmen responded to the Board of Health’s letter with a motion to approve contacting town counsel, contingent on another inspection of the property to make sure its status had not changed.

Attempts to reach Perla and Johnson by phone were unsuccessful.