It's been nearly seven months since a county health inspector discovered landlord Davin Gartley was supplying tenants in a row of Carrick townhouses with water through garden hoses hooked into their plumbing lines, a system that proved both illegal and ineffective as some tenants reported going without water for days at a time.
On Thursday, a district judge fined Mr. Gartley $1,800 and warned him he could face criminal prosecution if he failed to fix the problem. He said he worried that Mr. Gartley, who skipped two hearings before being threatened with jail time, did not understand the severity of the violations. The landlord's company, R.A.E.D. Investments, owns the townhouses and two nearby apartment buildings.
"I don't know that you're taking it seriously enough," District Judge Richard King said.
The townhouses were shut down and the tenants were ordered out two weeks ago after a health inspector noticed raw sewage bubbling in the front yard and draining into a widening pool in the parking lot. It left more than a dozen residents in limbo as they were given just a few days to pack their belongings and leave, forced out because the health department declared the sewage a public health hazard.
Thursday's hearing, though, concerned just the charges of illegal plumbing. Mr. Gartley, who declined comment, previously has said he set up the garden hoses to avoid paying a skyrocketing water bill that stemmed from a water line that was leaking 1 million gallons a month. When Pennsylvania American Water changed his metering to force him to pay for the lost water, he responded by shutting off the water to the townhouses and running garden hoses from the apartment buildings on the same parcel, which he also owns, sometime last summer.
It was not discovered by the health department until October, when inspector Thomas Mueller visited the property in response to a tip. Then came numerous letters, threatened fines and re-inspections until the case was finally filed with housing court in December. Mr. Gartley received a continuance in his first hearing Jan. 16. He then failed to show at two other hearings, resulting in a warrant for his arrest. He was able to avoid jail time by posting $540 in collateral two weeks ago.
During that same period, tenants dealt with sporadic water service as the lines running to their building often froze. On three occasions between Jan. 31 and Feb. 13, an inspector noted that tenants were without water service.
Judge King complained that many had given Mr. Gartley "the benefit of the doubt," and said he granted him the continuance in January to give him time to fix the problem.
"You never did that," he said. "Why are we sitting here from Jan. 16 to May 8 and nothing's been done?"
"Because the money," Mr. Gartley replied. "[The tenants] weren't paying rent."
Some of the tenants acknowledged they stopped paying rent to press him into fixing the water lines and cleaning up the sewage that was seeping up through the lawn.
But Mr. King did not buy that excuse either, telling Mr. Gartley that if he believe the tenants owed him rent, he should have pursued eviction notices. Still, he decided not to pursue the upper limit of fines for the six violations, saying he did not believe it to be practical. He told the landlord he could have fined him up to $25,000.
In all, Mr. Gartley was found guilty of six provisions of the health code for the garden hoses, for not using licensed plumbers and for not adhering to the permitting process. He was fined $300 for each plus court costs.
The health department has the option to pursue misdemeanor criminal charges against Mr. Gartley if he does not make the repairs within 30 days, which could result in more fines and potentially jail time. While it will be up to the health department to pursue criminal charges, Judge King urged them to do so.
Mr. Gartley still faces a raft of violations that were found by city building inspectors, who toured the townhomes and adjacent apartment buildings after the health department took action. Inspectors found missing bannisters, a rotting deck, broken windows and no smoke detectors. In all, they found 347 violations between the three buildings and a blighted garage.
Sonya Toler, the city's public safety spokeswoman, said Mr. Gartley has a 15-day window to fix some of the more severe violations. If he contacts the Bureau of Building Inspection within that time to report fixing the problems, the city will reinspect the building. If he fails to contact the city or to fix the problems, the cases will be forwarded to housing court, where he could find himself back before Judge King sometime soon.
Moriah Balingit: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published May 8, 2014 11:56 AM