Politics & Government

Lexington lawmaker's crumbling house unrepaired after repeated warnings

The roof is being repaired at the vacant Deepwood Drive house owned by state Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, and the lawmaker says all necessary reconstruction might be completed by year's end.
The roof is being repaired at the vacant Deepwood Drive house owned by state Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, and the lawmaker says all necessary reconstruction might be completed by year's end. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — For the past two years, city housing inspectors have warned state Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo to make major repairs to her crumbling, vacant home in north Lexington or potentially face thousands of dollars in fines, according to city records.

However, the Lexington Division of Code Enforcement has not taken punitive action against Palumbo, a Democrat who joined the Kentucky House in 1991.

City officials said Palumbo doesn't get special treatment because she represents Lexington's interests at the Capitol. Rather, her 3,564-square-foot home is so rundown that they want to give her a reasonable amount of time to address more than a dozen violations, officials said.

"The last time I was there, it looked like a haunted house," said David Jarvis, code enforcement director.

Neighbors say the home at 10 Deepwood Drive, with its trash-strewn yard, is a worsening eyesore and a public health risk because raccoons and rats come and go through various holes in its exterior.

"I've been here eight years, and that house has never been lived in. It's been abandoned and it's bringing down property values all along the street," said Barry Crume, who also lives on Deepwood Drive, a cul-de-sac of large, handsome brick and stone homes.

"I don't know if she's embarrassed that she can't deal with this or if she thinks she's above the law because she's an elected official," Crume said. "Whatever it is, she needs to fix it."

Palumbo, 62, lives nearby at her mother's house on Old Paris Road, which is in her House district, although she still gives 10 Deepwood Drive as her home address in state records and picks up her mail there.

Speaking this week, Palumbo said she never intended for her home to fall into such disrepair. She said she delayed rehabilitation because of hazards inside the house — mold, asbestos and lead-based paint — that will require specialists to remove. Federal environmental rules for such work have been strengthened under President Barack Obama, she said.

"There are a lot of new regulations that we want to comply with," said Palumbo, chairman of the House Economic Development Committee. "It wasn't like you could just open the Yellow Pages and call someone to do all this kind of work."

Repairs to the roof recently began, and some materials have been gutted and removed from the house. A large Dumpster filled with yard waste sat on the lawn Monday. Palumbo said it's possible all necessary reconstruction could be completed by the end of this year.

"As soon as we can," she said. "I believe in doing things the right way."

Acting on neighbors' complaints about a dilapidated, abandoned property, city inspectors visited Palumbo's home on Jan. 21, 2010, according to city records. The two-story brick house is assessed for tax purposes at $270,000 and sits on a 1.67-acre lot.

Afterward, inspectors gave Palumbo a list of 15 code enforcement violations that had to be corrected within 30 days, including brick walls that were broken, cracked, leaning or collapsed; damaged or rotting siding materials; broken or rotted sections of the roof; and fallen rain gutters and window shutters.

Inspectors warned Palumbo in letters that "civil penalties can range from $100 to $2,000 each day and are cumulative." But they never fined the legislator. Instead, they granted her a long series of 30-day extensions.

As of the most recent city inspection, in May, none of the necessary repairs had been made, inspectors noted in their files.

It might be time to act, said Jarvis, the code enforcement director. Inspectors will return to Deepwood Drive this month, he said.

"We'll fine her if she hasn't done any work," Jarvis said. "We've got her under the gun."

Palumbo's neighbors say they wish the city would enforce the law.

"I should preface this by saying that I like Ruth Ann personally. But that place is a wreck, it's just totally ramshackle," said neighbor Lavinia Spirito.

Palumbo and her family moved into the house in 1977. Spirito said Palumbo never maintained the house that well, but "in the past 10 to 12 years, it has gotten worse. There has been no appreciable effort to keep up that property."

"We have all repeatedly pleaded with Ruth Ann to do something with that place," Spirito said. "It doesn't have to be ritzy. But it shouldn't have vermin crawling all around and the shutters falling off."