By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s junk ordinance received its first test in Addison County District Court last week, when an Addison County jury found Rogers Road resident Terry Morris guilty on two violations of the two-year-old law.
It was in May of 2006 that Middlebury selectmen approved the municipal junk ordinance, a move triggered by neighborhood complaints about Morris’s property. Morris, during the past several years, has accumulated on his lawn a large collection of items, including skis, bathtubs, toilets, wheelchairs, Jell-O molds, wooden pallets, sleds and bowling balls.
Morris has argued his possessions are not junk, but valued items he collects and enjoys. But neighbors have said Morris’s yard has become an eyesore, to the extent that it is affecting their property values. Town listers have agreed, in some cases lowering the assessments on some neighboring properties. Rogers Road residents Bernard and Ruth Stewart — who testified at the July 23 trial — saw their property valuation reduced by $15,000 as a result of the condition of Morris’s lawn.
Ruth Stewart said she was pleased with the jury’s verdict in the case.
“We’re glad that something is being done,” she said. “I hope (authorities) will follow through until there is a cleanup.”
Morris, reached on Wednesday, declined to comment pending his sentencing hearing, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 11.
Morris acted as his own attorney during the trial.
It was a trial that saw the Stewarts testify that they had erected a fence along the property line when Morris’s yard became a problem.
“(The fence) worked for a while, because (Morris) started small, but what we heard from Bernard Stewart is that it worked until his collection of things expanded beyond what the fence would cover,” said Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Christopher Perkett, who prosecuted the case.
When the fence no longer worked, the Stewarts and other neighbors clamored for, and received, a junk ordinance. The law requires residents in the most densely populated parts of town to remove, or screen, junk on their property — or face fines and possible court action. Violators who fail to clean up their junk within 30 days are subject to fines of up to $1,000 per offense. The town also has the right to seek “injunctive relief and civil penalties” against offenders through Addison County Superior Court.
Since the ordinance went into effect last year, Middlebury police have received numerous complaints about junk on Morris’s property and have followed through with written warnings.
Morris at his trial had to answer to five counts of violating the municipal junk ordinance. The jury found him guilty on two counts. While the town ordinance specifies fines of up to $1,000 per violation, Perkett said state law (which trumps the local ordinance) only allows for a fine of up to $500 per offense.
Perkett said the Middlebury ordinance was a useful tool in prosecuting the case.
“I think it cuts a very balanced line between allowing people to enjoy their property their way, and not allowing people to affect in a negative way, their neighbors,” Perkett said.
He said he hopes the verdict sends a message.
“I always hope that a guilty verdict will serve to deter others from similar conduct,” Perkett said.
“I think it’s probably a good sign that the ordinance can be enforced, if needed,” said Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger. “It’s a shame it had to go this far.”