CHESTER - Despite its pristine reputation, the city of Chester is home to some properties that City Council members would be embarrassed to call home.
One of them is the house at 120 Church Alley.
City officials say the residence typifies the problem the city is having with unkempt properties - properties full of old cars, children's toys and assorted junk.
The rear view of 120 Church Alley, Chester, from Pennsylvania Avenue. The vacant red house to the left lacks a front door and is another problem property. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
But the homeowner, Christopher J. Graham, believes he's being unfairly singled out because of past conflicts with the city.
"Look at the vacant, condemned houses (in Chester). By far, mine is nowhere near the top 10," Graham said. "I believe mine is pretty clean by comparison."
For the second time in five months, Graham, 37, has appeared before Chester Municipal Court Judge Curtis Parkins on a complaint of failing to maintain his property - an alleged violation of City Ordinance 286.
In September, he pleaded guilty and was fined $100. This week, he pleaded not guilty and, after a finding of guilt by Parkins, was sentenced to three days in jail and fined $122.
Graham is appealing the verdict to Hancock County Circuit Court, saying he was blindsided by city officials who showed up on his doorstep Wednesday night.
"They told me, 'You need to be in court tomorrow morning,' " he said.
Graham, owner of Affordable Construction, said he assumed he was in good standing with the city after cleaning up his property following the September case.
"I agreed with them at the time. I had not accumulated anything else since that date," he said, noting that some of the items on his property are from his contracting business.
But 2nd Ward Councilman John Woodruff, who lives just a few doors down from Graham, said Graham's home has been the subject of more than 20 complaints from city residents.
"It's not just neighbors," Woodruff said. "There are people in the Upper End who will drive by and say, 'Can't you do something about that?' "
Unmaintained properties are a frequent topic of discussion at Chester City Council meetings, with councilmen expressing frustration at the city's seeming inability to enforce compliance with city codes.
Mayor Ken Morris said the city usually sends a warning letter to a derelict homeowner first and then, if the problem persists, follows that up with a formal complaint.
Woodruff said Chester can't get money from the state to pay for home demolitions because it is an incorporated city.
Regardless, Morris said the Graham case signifies the city's desire and intention to pursue homeowners more aggressively.
"It's just time we crack down on the people who keep piling cars and junk up in their yard," he said. "We're not going to drop it. We're going to start pursuing these people and getting them to clean it up."
Also this week, Parkins paid a visit to a resident in Ward 1 whose "place looks like a dump" and gave him two weeks to clean it up, Woodruff said. A resident who lives on Alley O was given until March 28, Woodruff said.
"It's a death trap for kids," he said.
Woodruff said he's lived in Chester all his life and can't remember such a problem with unmaintained homes. "This is a nice little alley. Everybody kept their places nice," he said.