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Lawsuit Delays Resolution at Blighted Dent Place Site

By Brady HoltCurrent Staff Writer

Dent Place residents have spent years living with a vacant, deteriorating house on their Georgetown street. Already considered an eyesore, the home at 3324 Dent suffered another blow in September 2011 when a falling tree crushed its roof. Neighbors have complained about rats, mosquitoes and break-ins. Rabid raccoons are another recent fear, following a reported attack in the area earlier this year.

Developer Deyi Awadallah, who bought the property for $560,000 at a tax sale in May 2012, has promised to address the blight. He won rare approval from the Old Georgetown Board last fall to raze the 1850s home, with board members concluding that the rotted wooden structure was not salvageable. He said at the time that he intended to proceed quickly.

But the process has been stalled by a “clouded title,” Awadallah said in an interview Monday — the previous owner is trying to reclaim ownership. The next court date is Nov. 20, following several delays.

The ownership issue is also holding up planned archaeological investigation of the site, which was home to a freed slave in the early 1800s.

The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has posted a notice at the property giving the owner until Sept. 2 to either repair or raze the house, which is draped with a torn blue plastic tarp but otherwise generally open to the elements. Awadallah said neither corrective action is likely.

“My lawyer recommended that I not make any further investment in the property until this is cleared up,” he said, referring to the lawsuit. “Until that’s resolved, we can’t do anything. The city’s aware of it. … I told them, ‘If you guys want to knock it down, go ahead.’”

Helder Gil, spokesperson for the regulatory agency, said he was aware of “severely deteriorated conditions” at 3324 Dent Place, but he had no further information about the property yesterday.

Some neighbors have worried that archaeological issues are further stalling the project. The property was once home to Yarrow Mamout, a prominent freed slave who may even be buried in the backyard. (His death in 1823 predates the current house.) The D.C. Historic Preservation Office has planned an investigation since December, but that has been stymied by the question of who owns the property, according to city archaeologist Ruth Trocolli.

“We’ve been promised access [by Awadallah] but until the legal dispute is settled, if we go in there and start poking around, and the original owners secure their claim and they didn’t give us privilege as well, I could just see that being a disaster,” she said.

Trocolli added that the investigation, which would likely take about a week, would be done concurrently with other environmental work on the site, such as soil borings. It therefore wouldn’t delay the project. She would hope to conduct her excavations before the home is razed, however.

The Dent Place property backs to a recently uncovered African-American cemetery on Q Street. Trocolli thinks Yarrow — who, as a Fulani Muslim, went by his first name — could be buried either there or on his own property. Other items from his lifetime may also be buried on the site. “It just seems to me that that possibility needs to be investigated before somebody comes in and fills it up,” said Trocolli.

She added that in some ways, the archaeological investigation could even speed the project. If human remains were found on the property during construction, the project would come to a halt while police ensure that the body isn’t a homicide victim — as happened on Q Street. Delays would be less severe if the remains were found before work began.

Trocolli is speaking about the Q Street cemetery and other aspects of D.C. archaeology at 6:45 p.m. tonight at the Mount Pleasant Library, 3160 16th Street.

This article appears in the Aug. 21 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.