By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD — The Town Council applied firmness tempered with compassion as they granted a Water Street property owner an extension until Feb. 14 to show significant progress in cleaning up land that has become strewn with unregistered motor vehicles, auto parts and assorted other junk.
On Nov. 3, 2021, Building Inspector Benjamin DeChristoforo issued the Cease-and-Desist Order under Section 154-8 of the town code to property owner Stephen Ulwick of 383 Water St. related to the storage of “abandoned, dismantled, inoperative, wrecked, junked and/or unregistered motor vehicles on a lot for more than 10 days.”
According to Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio, the issue has been going on for a lot longer than 10 days. Ulwick, Maio told the Town Council, has been accumulating items on his property “for decades.”
Maio said that the situation was one of the most difficult that he has encountered in his 15 years as Town Administrator. He described Ulwick as a “a really good person who seems to have a problem with hoarding items.”
Ulwick appealed the Building Inspector’s Cease-and-Desist Order to the Town Council for the purpose of requesting an extension of time to clean up the property.
Maio told the Town Council that a number of town officials visited the site in the fall, including representatives of the Police Department, Fire department, Building Department, Health Department and the Conservation Commission. (The Mill River runs along the property.)
Maio said that it became apparent at the time that the home itself was no longer safe or habitable and Ulwick was ordered to cease living there until significant cleanup of the home was done.
Maio said that he considered going the receivership route, but did not want to do that as it likely would have stripped Ulwick of his family homestead. Ulwick, 77, grew up in the home, Maio noted, and his family has lived there for generations.
Maio acknowledged that progress has been made with the cleanup, noting that while he was there one day late last week, four vehicles were removed. Maio said that he wanted the site cleaned up primarily for Ulwick’s safety but also for the sake of the neighbors.
Maio said that Ulwick had retained local attorney Brian McGrail to represent him in his appeal.
Town Councilor Edward Dombroski wondered id any of his fellow board members had visited the site.
“It looks like a junk yard,” he said, noting that the property is still covered with items. “If this represents progress, we’re looking at three years.” He maintained that Ulwick was put on notice last June.
Dombroski said that the town code is very clear. “If we don’t enforce the code, then the code has no meaning,” he said. He added that while he empathized with Ulwick, he also empathized with abutters and neighbors.
Speaking on behalf of his client, McGrail said that he was not brought in to be adversarial but rather to facilitate the cleanup and work with his client and the town.
He noted that the 4.5-acre site where most the junk is located is “way out back” and not easily visible from Water Street. He maintained that it was “not in the middle of a crowded neighborhood.” McGrail said that some of the approximately 20 vehicles on the site were collectible.
“Mr. Ulwick is 77,” McGrail said. “This is his childhood home, where he grew up. He had no idea what he was doing violated anything.”
Since getting the Cease-and-Desist Order, Ulwick has been compliant and cooperative, McGrail said. He told the town Council that 10 of the vehicles on the site have been removed, including an old fire engine. He has had four large dumpsters filled with material taken off the site, McGrail added, insisting that there has been “a tremendous amount of cleanup.”
He noted, however, that there have been a few obstacles. A gas leak on the street interrupted the cleanup work for a few days, he said, not to mention the holidays and the pandemic.
Since receiving the order, Ulwick has welcomed town officials on the property, McGrail said. He cited the financial burden of the cleanup on a senior citizen on a fixed income.
McGrail told the Town Council that the purpose of the appeal was not to dispute the order, but rather to request a 90-day extension. He said that given the level of cooperation that Ulwick has displayed, he believed the extension of time was warranted.
Health Inspector Coral Hope told the Town Council that she has also worked with Ulwick. She said that he has done whatever he’s been asked to do and has made great progress on cleaning out his home. She recommended giving him the full 180-day extension allowed by the bylaw.
“It won’t be as fast as people want,” she said, “but he is committed to getting rid of everything.”
Town Councilor Ann Santos said that she was proud to live in a town that exhibits so much compassion. She said that she trusted how Maio was handling the matter.
“I don’t think we gain anything by not granting an extension,” she said.
Maio said that regardless of what the Town Council decided to do, he recommended revisiting the matter in 30 days, adding that there needs to be pressure to continue the cleanup progress.
Dombroski agreed, observing that Ulwick seems to respond to deadlines – five vehicles were removed just days before the Town Council was to consider the appeal. Dombroski suggested that the Council grant a 30-day extension, with the possibility of another extension depending on how much progress has been made.
Members of the Town Council agreed that they should evaluate progress at their Feb. 14 meeting.
But Coral Hope requested more leniency, noting the progress that’s been made to date. She cited the difficulty in getting cleanup workers to come during the pandemic.
In the end, the Council voted 6-0 to grant an extension to Feb. 14, with any further extension dependent on how much progress is made between now and then.