Junk Cars Remain on Eve of Deadline

By MANDY LOCKE

One day shy of the deadline to rid 172 battered automobiles from Edgartown's unofficial junkyard, the property is still littered with nearly 140 junk cars, dozens of kitchen appliances, countless tires and even a dilapidated doghouse.

"This is a difficult situation for everyone. The town wants it cleaned up; we want it cleaned up. Everyone's been working in good faith," said Benjamin Hall Jr., attorney for his parents' 60-acre subdivision off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

Town officials placed property owners Therese and Benjamin Hall Sr. on a fast-track cleanup schedule after a brush fire led volunteer firemen into a blaze on the heavily wooded property in August. Rusted cars cluttered the dirt access road - blocking passage for fire trucks to reach a heap of 14 blazing vehicles a half-mile deep in the property.

When the well-known eyesore became a major safety hazard, officials offered the property owners 70 days before taking over the situation.

"If the gating does not occur on schedule; if the rate of removal of vehicles is not deemed satisfactory by the zoning officer or the board of health so as to meet the Nov. 30, 2002 deadline, or if any additional vehicles are brought to the property, the zoning officer and the board of health are prepared to bring immediate enforcement proceedings," wrote town counsel Ronald Rappaport in a letter dated August 21.

Ridding the dumping ground of nearly 200 abandoned vehicles became a logistical nightmare for the Halls. Weekly updates to the town's building and zoning inspector and board of health agent offered excuses for the lack of progress. Fewer than 40 cars have been taken from the property, 18 of them in the last few days.

"This week, two trailer loads remain empty and ready for loading. I am told that Tony Gramkowski was to come over to the site to load the two trailers, but was delayed last week as the completion of the site work at the Edgartown School has priority and further due to the rains," said Mr. Hall in a memorandum dated Oct. 3.

That message became the recurring theme in a stack of updates now filed in the building inspector's office. Rain, busy equipment operators and lack of Steamship Authority reservations plagued efforts since late August.

On Monday, sand the color of oil lingered at the foot of a heap of charred vehicles, remains from the August fire that consumed several acres of Hallgate forest. A ramshackle camper making a home on the property for well over a year has now completely collapsed. A steel rod pierced the windshield of an Subaru - one of many signs of after-hours play by the town's youth.

The piles of cars have multiplied in the two-and-a-half years that the illegal junkyard has been on the town's radar screen. Thirty-three cars in 2000 became 73 a year later. In late February of this year, 99 trucks, taxis, station wagons and sedans cluttered Hallgate. When the fire erupted in August, the count had risen to 172. Now, after an aggressive effort to clear the property, the mess remains.

Zoning inspector Leonard Jason Jr. ordered at least eight of those vehicles - removed from private properties across the town - onto Hallgate, a staging space for disposal trips off-Island.

Complying with the fast-track plan would have required the property owners to carry an average of two trailer loads a week - a feat the Halls found impossible to accomplish.

"I'm a one-man operation. I go up there when I have time," Mr. Gramkowski said this week, noting that he was unaware that meeting the deadline hinged on his ability to load the vehicles onto the flatbeds. Mr. Gramkowski uses his front-end loader mainly to excavate septic systems.

Cleanup comes with a hefty bill - a bill that the Halls are sharing with auto mechanic Pat Kelly, owner of abutting mechanic shop Edgartown Auto. The price tag for a round-trip tractor trailer trip on the ferry is more than $250. Mr. Gramkowski's services come with an $80 hourly rate, and the speed with which he can load nine cars on a trailer depends on how far they are located from the flatbed trailer. Some of the rusted hunks crumble when the front-end loader scoops them up. Others have been in Hallgate long enough to have trees and shrubs growing through windows and up through rotted floorboards.

"It's a mess out there," Mr. Gramkowski said.

Trucker Steve Bradley, who has been carrying loads for the Halls, said he schedules his trips based on the availability of a return load. He collects no money from the Halls, but simply cashes out on whatever cash he can snag from a salvage yard off-Island. The scrap metal market bottomed out a few years ago, and haulers like Mr. Bradley are lucky to secure $20 per ton of metal weight. Mr. Bradley's incentive to haul a bulky, dangerous load of junkers is in the return-trip ferry reservation, which allows him to bring a load of other goods on his empty trailer.

"I'm not even making a half-day's pay with the cars, but we're getting moved along," Mr. Bradley said Wednesday, confessing that coordinating the various workers has been a challenge.

Mr. Kelly assumed responsibility for many of the junk cars scattered across Hallgate. In March of this year, he admitted to collecting $200 a pop for taking each unsalvageable vehicle and using the Hall's property as a temporary staging area.

The Halls faced a legal snag with the cleanup effort - a law that prohibits the disposal of junk cars without transferring the title to the salvage yard.

"Since we don't own these vehicles, we have a liability problem with taking the vehicles," Mr. Hall said. He added that Mr. Kelly and other mechanics have been able to produce the majority of the 172 titles.

Edgartown selectmen will meet with Mr. Jason and the board of health Tuesday to determine the town's next enforcement step.

"The Halls have been working diligently to get it cleaned up," Mr. Jason said Wednesday.

In the meantime, state police, under the direction of the Cape and Islands district attorney's office, are investigating who is responsible for the illegal dumping ground.

"There are a million questions. We're going to try and find answers to a few questions that police have," said state police Sgt. Jeff Stone, who is taking the lead on the investigation.