MARTINSBURG - A little over a year ago, neighbors say, the family at 406 W. Allegheny St., Martinsburg left in the middle of the night. Today, the only outside signs that anyone had lived there are a satellite dish and a pair of yellowed newspapers on the porch.
The neighbors didn't know it at the time, but the house was in the midst of foreclosure. And since then, Martinsburg's taxpayers have been footing the bill to maintain its increasingly weed-filled lawn.
It's a problem that small municipalities in Blair County have dealt with, in varying degrees of success, since the nationwide mortgage crisis struck in 2006.
"We mowed it all last summer, and here we are, mowing it again," said Borough Manager Randy Stoltz. "It's been over a year now."
In enforcing a borough ordinance that requires property owners to keep their grass trimmed, Martinsburg officials have spent hundreds of dollars keeping the double lot from becoming an eyesore and negatively impacting neighbors' property values.
"Our property will go down because it's a foreclosure," said next-door neighbor Deborah Shoup.
Martinsburg officials said they've long attempted to bill the house's owner - Bank of America, the country's second-largest bank holding company, based in Charlotte, N.C.
When bank representatives at a corporate address in Simi Valley, Calif., didn't reply with payment or a promise to maintain the lawn, the borough placed a series of liens on the lot.
"Most people don't want liens on their property, but they haven't said anything," said Frederick Gieg Jr., Martinsburg's solicitor.
Gieg said the bank's massive size and out-of-state headquarters make it less likely to respond to a small borough's demands.
"If this was a local bank, we wouldn't have this problem," he said.
On Friday, a Bank of America representative said the company was looking into the situation, though it was uncertain of the house's ownership and maintenance situation.
The next step, Gieg said, is to reduce the liens to a judgment, which would allow the municipality to auction the house at a sheriff's sale. That would require a series of legal warnings, a process that borough officers said is already under way.
Wednesday marked the deadline on Gieg's April 9 ultimatum to Bank of America's unnamed California representative.
"I intend to institute procedures to sheriff-sale the property," he wrote in a letter addressed simply to "Gentleman."
Gieg said he hoped the threat would lead the bank to pay the $350 and service costs it owes.
"Good luck" was Tyrone Interim Manager Phyllis Garhart's advice for Gieg and Stoltz. "It's a struggle."
Garhart said she, too, has dealt with overgrown foreclosures owned by out-of-state banks. The properties become blighted, with grass and weeds growing higher. In the worst cases, rodents move in.
"They're houses that needed a lot of TLC. I'll put it that way - and I'm putting it nicely," Garhart said.
She said Tyrone officials usually hire private contractors to maintain abandoned homes. It's an expensive solution, she said, but it can pay off when the banks are available for contact. Too often, though, the financial clearinghouses that own the homes are nearly impossible to find, Garhart said.
"They need to really track that property," she said of municipal authorities. "[Banks] sell properties, one to the other."
Ginny Zoraster, a media representative at Bank of America, said Friday that she'd forwarded information on the Martinsburg house to the company's property-management arm.
"I sent it for some research to our Field Services group," which is based primarily in Texas, Zoraster said. "They're just trying to track down everything."
In wealthy, suburban areas, banks are more inclined to maintain lawns, home interiors and swimming pools, said Deborah Shade, a real estate agent with Howard Hanna Johnston in Altoona.
"In this area, it's completely different," Shade said. "The foreclosures that we get around here are very bad."
Most in the area are valued between $15,000 and $60,000, she said, and are sold as-is.
In small and rural municipalities where foreclosures are uncommon, banks may sometimes neglect to hire maintenance crews, said Brent Ambrose, a risk-management professor at Penn State University's Smeal College of Business.
"It could be that there's just not a large enough volume of foreclosures in the area," Ambrose said.
Pennsylvania foreclosures take 554 days to complete on average - compared with 348 days nationally, according to foreclosure-data website RealtyTrac.
In Pennsylvania, a home's former owners receive an equity-of-redemption period, during which they can regain control of the property if their mortgage default is reversed. As a result, banks wait to resell the homes for fear that the old owners could return.
Still, Ambrose said, maintaining the property until then is the bank's responsibility - and Martinsburg's sheriff's-sale solution could work if the situation is dire.
"If the liens are large enough, they could eventually do that," he said.
Officials in one small Blair County borough said they've had some success dealing with faraway financial institutions.
"You have to do a lot of research to find out who owns the property," said Lisa Gates, Roaring Spring's secretary and treasurer. "But we use the police. The response has been good."
Borough police issue citations against the property owners - in this case, the banks - and can use dangerous-structure ordinances if the house is in poor enough shape.
"We wait until the bank is named as the property owner," Roaring Spring Police Chief Milton Fields said. "Typically the banks will deal with us."
Banks have usually sent maintenance crews after receiving police notice, he said.
"It's tough, but most of them will find somebody," he said. "After all, they want these places to look halfway presentable."
Looking at the empty house at 406 W. Allegheny St., neighbors said they'd like to see the property sold.But with no "for sale" sign in the yard - just a few overturned pieces of furniture inside and a notice from a Florida-based maintenance company in the window - the neighbors don't expect a solution soon.
"It's in bad shape. ... The town's got to pay the bill for that," said Shoup, the next-door-neighbor. "Somebody's going to have to put some serious money in it."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.