STAMFORD – When Gerri and Vin Cortese sit on their patio on a summer evening, they sometimes get the feeling they’re being watched.
And sometimes, when they look over the fence and arborvitae trees that separate their yard from the one next door, they see that their feeling is right.
Sometimes a raccoon is staring at them from one of the holes in the side of the house next door. Or it might be a feral cat. Or maybe a couple of squirrels.
“Sometimes I’m not sure what kind of animal it is – I only see eyes,” Gerri Cortese said.
She first reported the situation in 2013, about a year after her 97-year-old neighbor, Dr. Maurice Harte, died, Gerri Cortese said. Court documents show that Harte’s son, Heath Harte, who lives a few blocks away, is co-executor of the doctor’s estate, which includes the house at 122 Brook Run Lane.
It’s set in a bucolic neighborhood of well-kept homes. Brook Run Lane wraps around Cooper’s Pond. The Corteses’ backyard slopes down from the patio to a bright green lawn, several flower beds, and trees with graceful branches that frame their view of the pond.
But the view next door is unsettling.
The house at 122 Brook Run Lane is in shambles.
Shingles are mildewed and rotting, falling off the sides, creating gaps where animals come and go. The roof has holes in it. Windows are boarded. Shrubbery is growing on a back deck.
In the front, a plastic sheet covers part of the roof and a green plastic fence stretches across the yard. The driveway is taken up by a pair of old cars and a dumpster covered with a blue tarp.
Court documents show that the city has certified the property as blighted, and began issuing a blight fine of $100 a day on April 23, 2019. As of April 6 of this year, the fines had accumulated to $144,500.
Since then, another $11,200 in fines has accrued, for a total of $155,700.
Information from the tax collector’s office shows the property had $91,500 in unpaid taxes and interest. Add to that this year’s levy, plus another year of 18 percent interest, and the taxes owed now amount to more than $100,000.
Harte, an attorney, did not return an emailed request for comment Thursday, but the case of City of Stamford vs. Heath Harte reveals some of what’s gone on since 2019.
A January 2022 court document states that Harte contends that the property has been continually maintained, and that he had been trying to contact the city’s anti-blight officer to let him know. The officer, however, did not respond to requests to talk, Harte alleges.
Harte also said in the court papers that he is doing construction on the house, but could not get a city building inspector there, preventing him from obtaining a permit and finishing the project.
Attorney Vincent Freccia of Stamford, who has a contract with the city to handle blight and tax foreclosures, said 122 Brook Run Lane is among his longest-running cases.
“There are blight and real estate foreclosures on the property,” Freccia said. “Foreclosure of a blight lien is the last resort to get resolution of blight violations.”
The city law department will settle with a property owner once the blight is repaired, or “cured” in legal terms, Freccia said.
“We can’t settle this case now because the owner is still in violation,” Freccia said. “When we get to the point where it’s cured, the city can say make us a reasonable offer of settlement. The vast majority of cases that get to that point are settled.”
But there’s no way to tell how long a case may last, he said. It may take a year or more just to get a trial date, for example. And if a property owner declares bankruptcy, the brakes go on.
“Bankruptcy stops all collection on all debts,” Freccia said. “The bankruptcy code is federal, and once it’s filed, everything stops.”
Freccia has cases that date to 2016, he said.
His office has 25 to 75 blight cases pending at any one time, with about 20 in litigation, Freccia said.
But there could be much more blight out there.
“The city doesn’t go out looking for blighted properties. These are all cases that came through a letter to the city from a neighbor, or through someone who filed a complaint with FixIt Stamford,” the city’s online service request portal, Freccia said.
“Once it gets into the system, it generates a notice to the anti-blight paralegal, then the anti-blight officer goes out,” Freccia said. “If the officer agrees the property is blighted, he sends a warning letter giving the owner 10 days to get in touch or cure the problems.”
The anti-blight officer returns to see whether the owner did what was agreed upon and, if not, the official process begins. It includes a series of notices and inspections and deadlines, with an opportunity to appeal.
“We don’t want to go to foreclosure; we want to resolve things,” Freccia said. “People in foreclosure are the ones who basically put their head in the sand.”
The case of 122 Brook Run Lane, a 4,663-square-foot, split-level home to wildlife, is “severe,” he said.
“We are trying to get the judge to move this along, to get to a judgment hearing,” Freccia said. “We’re doing the best we can. The court system works the way the court system works.”
Vin Cortese said he put up the fence and planted the arborvitae trees, and tries not to look at the house next door.
“All of that cost a lot, but it doesn’t block everything. Recently there was a dead raccoon on the chimney. God only knows what happened to it,” Cortese said. “Everything from that yard grows into my yard – I have to get a guy here to cut it all back. We’ve been here 33 years. I can’t believe we have to deal with this.”
Gerri Cortese said they love their home and don’t want to move. She has a decade’s worth of emails to city representatives, the building department, health department, police department, and different mayoral administrations. An animal control officer told her they cannot enter the home because it is private property, she said.
“Sometimes this musty smell comes from the house. It has to be full of mold. And I wonder if any of the raccoons have rabies,” Gerri Cortese said. “I posted videos of the animals on NextDoor, and people wrote that you shouldn’t try to get rid of the raccoons and the cats because they are keeping out the vermin.
“That’s probably good advice.”