In a move that has left neighbors relieved, Delaware Attorney General Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III on Tuesday announced the permanent closure of two Frankford-area properties that he said have been the site of constant drug crime and violence over a period of several years.
The closures are the latest in the Delaware Department of Justice Nuisance Abatement initiative, a program Biden expanded statewide in 2007 to identify properties where crime is allowed to continue unchecked. Delaware’s Nuisance Abatement Act gives those property owners the choice to either clean up the problem voluntarily or face the Department of Justice, and significant fines, in court.
“Properties like these hold neighborhoods prisoner with fear and apprehension. They’re the bad apples that spoil the bunch. That’s not what ‘home’ should mean for any family,” Biden said. “Nuisance Abatement is a powerful tool to root out these poisonous properties from the community and create a better quality of life for law-abiding Delawareans.”
On Oct. 15, 2009, the Delaware Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against members of the Foreman family, the owners of 28565 Blueberry Lane, near Frankford, because of severe drug nuisance activity at the home.
At a hearing last November in Sussex County Superior Court, the DoJ provided evidence of that activity, including of an armed robbery during which shots were fired in the presence of an 8-year-old child, as well as a stabbing, and a drive-by shooting during which bullets entered the house when a 6-month-old baby and a 2-year-old child were present.
The property has long been known as a site of drug activity.
“It’s been a problem since I was still with the State Police,” Frankford Police Chief William “Bill” Dudley noted on Sept. 21, adding that he had responded to the property numerous times in recent years while assisting the Delaware State Police. Since October 2004, in fact, police have visited the property at least 18 times to apprehend fugitives believed to be on-site.
Following the November 2009 hearing, at the DoJ’s request, Resident Judge T. Henley Graves agreed that the property presented an immediate threat to the public health, safety and welfare and issued a temporary abatement order closing the property. The closure of the property meant that no one – including the owners – was permitted to be there at any time, and anyone found on the property was subject to arrest. A large sign posted on the front of the home delivered that message in bright red. Since that time, no additional instances of drug activity have been reported there.
Dudley said Tuesday that various Foreman family members had been connected to reported drug activity on the property over the years. And, he said, since they had been forced to move from the Blueberry Lane property by the DoJ order, they had relocated to a home at 34676 Delaware Avenue, where drug activity appeared to be taking place, as well. The Delaware Avenue property, Dudley and neighbors of the Blueberry Lane property noted, is just a few doors down from a church.
Community concern had contributed to Tuesday’s closure of the second property, DoJ officials noted, saying that meetings with members of the community after the temporary closure of the Blueberry Lane property had led them to realize the problem had extended to the second home.
Assistant Attorney General Dan Logan on Tuesday offered his thanks to former and current town council members for their efforts.
“Thank you for your leadership, for bringing this to our attention at these community meetings. You made it obvious that these were obstacles that the Town of Frankford wanted to get past,” he said.
Logan said that, after DoJ officials learned about the Delaware Avenue property and that it also had been the site of substantial drug activity over a period of several years, they then sought permanent closure of both properties in order to protect the community. That order, developed as a consent agreement with the properties’ eight owners, was signed Monday, Sept. 20, by Graves.
Under the terms of the agreement, owners and residents Ronald and Vanessa Foreman must vacate the Delaware Avenue property within 30 days; owners Ronald, Vanessa and Greg Foreman are to have absolutely no contact with either property or the surrounding 2-mile radius ever again; and the owners and occupants of both properties have relinquished any and all property rights to both properties.
Additionally, the remaining co-owners are required to clear both properties of all mobile homes, trailers, campers and other structures within 90 days. After clearing both properties, the remaining, non-occupant, co-owners will be permitted to sell the land, subject to approval by the Department of Justice.
If any owner is found to be maintaining a drug nuisance anywhere else in the state, the agreement is considered violated, and the state will seek civil penalties of a minimum of $25,000.
Biden thanked state Rep. John Atkins and Sen. George Bunting on Tuesday for their work to put more teeth in the law that made the closures possible.
Atkins was among officials announcing the closures this week. He recalled having flown over the Blueberry Lane property years prior, in a Delaware State Police helicopter, when it was noted for the accumulated trash in the yard.
“We’ve rooted the community of Frankford from these drug dealers, from the safe-havens where they reside,” he said, adding that neighboring property owners had already approached him with potential interest in developing a new community there once the structures are removed.
State Sen. George Bunting expressed his relief at the closure of the properties, noting that Frankford is his home town.
“I grew up not over a mile from here. My … family owned a store almost within shouting distance from here. My late mom was arm-robbed at least twice in the store itself,” he said. “We know as a family what the drug problem is. We know as a community – and I still refer to it as my home – Frankford is moving forward and has been moving forward. And, with this action, the people who live here can feel safe about their community, feel safe to go out their doors. It’s first time in a long time you’ve seen government really following through and getting something done.”
Dudley emphasized on Tuesday that, while the Blueberry Lane property is outside town limits, its impacts on Frankford were being felt.
“All the problems that came from this area, as well as the problems that came from Delaware Avenue, practically lived in our town, day in and day out. The people who lived here were in and out of our town all day long, every day. They made their deliveries to and from different locations in town.”
Dudley offered particular thanks to the Delaware State Police for their assistance.
“With a police department of one, you can’t exactly go undercover and make drug buys,” he explained, noting that state troopers had done just that to help crack the case.
Dudley also offered his thanks to Frankford’s Neighborhood Watch.
“We have a very big and very active Neighborhood Watch program,” he said. “They’re not afraid to pick up the phone and call people and report tag numbers, and without them, we couldn’t have gotten it done.”
Logan emphasized on Tuesday that there were two elements to the problem that the abatement program is meant to address: the occupants, and the property itself.
“The bad actors are now banned, from a 2-mile radius of the property,” he noted. “The other problem is this lot. What you don’t want to do is just walk away and allow someone else to buy this property as is.” The result is the mandate for the remaining property owners to raze the structures and sell the property subject to DoJ approval. “You get a responsible owner. You put in a mechanism to ensure they are a good neighbor,” he explained.
“Nuisance abatement is community prosecution at work – prosecutors and investigators working side by side with residents and community leaders from the ground up to improve our neighborhoods,” Biden added. “We find a problem, and then we develop a solution. Today’s permanent closures are a powerful step in helping the residents of Frankford have the peace and security they deserve in their homes and in their neighborhoods.”
“Let this be a warning that we are not going to tolerate these illegal activities around the district,” said Atkins. “I am glad that our residents had the courage and diligence to report these problems and show pride in their community. I am proud to support Attorney General Biden in his efforts and was proud to support the legislation we passed to clean up our neighborhoods and rid them of nuisance properties and drug havens.”
In August 2007, Biden launched a statewide effort to combat crime in Delaware under the state’s Drug Nuisance and Social Vices Abatement Act. The department gives property owners the choice of voluntarily cooperating to clean up the illegal activity, or defending themselves in court and being forced to clean up the crime by court order. To date, 15 properties have been shut down, more than 125 nuisances have been eliminated, and more than 300 properties are on the program’s “watch list.”