Durham real estate entrepreneur amasses $600,000-plus fine for illegal dumps | Durham County | Indy Week
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Durham real estate entrepreneur amasses $600,000-plus fine for illegal dumps 

Durham businessman Lynn E. Graham has accumulated nearly six acres of construction and demolition debris, piles of fill dirt, junked cars, junked furniture and just plain junk at two illegal dump sites, one in East Durham and one near Research Triangle Park.

click to enlarge The illegal dumping site on Pettigrew Street in East Durham. Graham says he no longer owns this property. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • The illegal dumping site on Pettigrew Street in East Durham. Graham says he no longer owns this property.

Cited numerous times by county regulators for an array of environmental and zoning violations since early 2003, Graham has also accumulated more than $600,000 in fines--and counting, at $2,400 a day, until he brings the properties up to standards.

It's the largest financial penalty Durham County's erosion control officer, Joe Pearce, has imposed. The enormous dollar figure signifies a long, convoluted effort by regulators to convince Graham to clean up his properties and protect the environment from pollution. Last week, a judge gave the landowner two weeks to come up with a plan for doing so.

"We want Mr. Graham to do two things: Get a revised plan for how to bring these sites into compliance with his permits; and be held accountable for doing it, not just talking about what's going to happen," Assistant County Attorney Curtis Massey told Superior Court Judge Abraham Penn Jones at a March 30 hearing.

The smaller of Graham's properties in contention is a five-acre parcel that lies between East Pettigrew Street and the Durham Freeway in an industrial area of the city. Inspectors have documented two and a half acres of debris, including, apparently, some demolition materials from the City of Durham's Barnes Avenue redevelopment project.

click to enlarge MAP BY V.C. ROGERS

The second site, part of a 70-acre parcel at 4303 S. Alston Ave., was set up as a dump for the demolition of the old South Square Mall in 2003, according to Graham's original plans. While he says that none of South Square's remains wound up there, more than three acres are covered in fill dirt and other debris of undisclosed origins that's encroaching on protected floodplain land, according to county records.

In both cases, Graham has a permit that limits him to less than one acre of dumped materials. In addition to collecting roughly triple the amount of fill allowed, county officials say, Graham has failed to establish and maintain sediment-control measures such as silt fencing, appropriate grading and seeding. That causes top soil and other sediment to wash off the property and into storm water, polluting waterways and spilling onto neighboring properties and public roads.

Graham says he's tried to do what the county's asked of him, but has been hampered by people dumping on his property without permission

"I'm a good citizen; I try to obey the law. I've done what was required of me," Graham says, declining comment on the particulars of the accusations.

After three years of trying to corral Graham through regulatory channels, county officials are now pursuing him through the courts. Graham asserts he's done everything he can to prevent further dumping at the Pettigrew site, including installing a gate, posting "no trespassing" signs and asking police for help.

"Durham charges $39 a ton to dispose of debris, so what happened? People started driving their pickup trucks and dump trucks there," Graham's attorney, Sam Roberti, argued. The property has turned into "a site in East Durham where every Hispanic brick mason thinks they can dump their debris for free."

But it's clear from county records that Graham permitted at least some of the dumping.

On July 5, 2005, inspectors visiting the site intercepted a dump truck. When questioned, the driver said he worked for "the Perry brothers" and his load came from "the Barnes project," according to the inspection report filed that day.

Richard Valzonis, the project manager for the city's $10 million Barnes Avenue redevelopment venture, confirmed that a clearing and grading sub-contractor by that name was involved in the inner-city revitalization project last year. Construction and demolition debris from Barnes Avenue were supposed to go to a city-owned transfer station, where the city picked up the tip fee, Valzonis says. He could not offer any logical explanation for why the city's subcontractors would bring materials to an illegal dump except to speculate that perhaps it was fill dirt, which was not specifically covered in the contract that allowed subcontractors to dump at the city transfer station for free.

Pearce later traced the license plate to a Shelby, N.C., man and asked Graham about him, according to notes from a meeting between the two men. Graham said he'd given the man permission to dump there some time ago, and just hadn't gotten around to telling him to stop.

Roberti insisted in court that Graham no longer owns the Pettigrew Street property, and that the county should pursue the new owner instead. Graham's uncle, a New York City real estate entrepreneur named Clinton Graham, held a lien on the property and foreclosed last year, Roberti said, but the deed has not been transferred because of a paperwork glitch. But even if it has been sold, Graham is still responsible under the law for the dumping that occurred while he owned it, the county's lawyer says.

As of press time, county tax and land records still show Lynn Graham and his wife, Felicia, as the legal owners. Records also show, however, that Lynn Graham has struggled to hold onto the parcel. In addition to fighting off private note-holders, Graham rescued the land from the county tax collector last July, just hours before it was scheduled to be auctioned on the courthouse steps.

The financial transactions detailing the history of the Pettigrew property are just one example of the myriad legal filings that make up Lynn Graham's paper trail in Durham real estate.

The tax foreclosure process that nearly cost him the Pettigrew property was one of many the county has launched in recent years to collect delinquent taxes on dozens of properties, court records show.

Charles Reinhardt, an attorney with whom the county contracts to pursue tax collections, says Graham is one of his largest and most frequent targets. A real estate investor by trade, the 46-year-old Graham juggles his tax debts long past the many warning letters the county sends to delinquent taxpayers before turning to court action, Reinhardt says.

"He buys and sells properties and makes a profit on the turn, and it's just one of those things where he's always trying to stay one step ahead of the next creditor," Reinhardt says.

Court records show Graham is the defendant in dozens of lawsuits by other plaintiffs, including private parties such as the Black Horse Run homeowners' association in the northern Durham County community of Bahama (for not paying dues on his home at 205 Get A Way Lane) and the City of Durham, which has sued him over non-payment of city property taxes and condemned at least one house he owned.

Though Graham isn't licensed as a broker, the state agency that regulates real estate professionals has fielded a half-dozen complaints about him and his companies, East Coast Investments and Carolina Properties, since 1989, according to the N.C. Real Estate Commission. The agency has no authority over Graham because he doesn't need a license to conduct his own investment business or to manage properties he owns. N.C. Secretary of State records show Graham is the proprietor of two additional corporations, Suncrest Properties and Blue Horseshoe Investments, both with the same Duke Street address.

Court records also show that Graham has a lengthy criminal record, including a string of misdemeanor charges such as writing worthless checks. And in a 1991 federal lawsuit involving the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Graham was indicted with co-defendant James Webb, a Triangle real estate entrepreneur who's been accused of swindling investors and profiled in the Independent (see "Smooth Operator," Dec. 8, 2004, http://www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A23239). The charges against Graham were dismissed, while Webb was convicted of one charge, according to records.

Graham insists that he was innocent of any wrongdoing in that case, and that he knew Webb simply as "a college buddy" at N.C. Central University, where Webb was the student body president.

"I had no involvement in that whatsoever, and that's why the charges were all dropped," Graham says.

Graham was convicted, however, in a 1990 Virginia case where he was charged with a misdemeanor count of "cheating on property or services," for which he was ordered to pay $9,000 restitution and serve one year of probation, according to the N.C. Department of Correction's database. North Carolina authorities supervised his probation, which ended in 1991, says Keith Acree, a department spokesman. Graham says the charges stemmed from a check that was returned for insufficient funds that he "didn't take care of in a timely manner."

Roberti says he was unaware of his client's criminal history and has only handled the illegal dumping case. That matter is scheduled for a full trial in August, at which time Roberti says he expects to appeal the still-mounting fines.

In the meantime, however, the judge has given Graham a deadline of April 13 to submit plans to bring both dump sites into compliance with the law and keep them there.

"We intend to work expeditiously to rectify all the problems," Graham said after the hearing.

The sooner the better for Durham's environment: Sediment run-off pollution is by far the largest pollutant of waterways used for human consumption and wildlife habitats. The point of erosion control regulations is to prevent the damage in the first place, so when cases drag on, the environmental toll does, too, says John Holley, an engineer with the land quality division of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"What we're after is compliance and control of sedimentation," he says. "Any time the local authorities go to court, there must be resistance--and serious resistance--to enforcement."

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