Raleigh, N.C. — A Wake County judge on Thursday ordered a homeowner to spend 60 days in jail for failing to clean up his messy property, which was later damaged in a fire.
Mike Cole and his family moved to the 3 ½-acre property at 11000 Eaglerock Drive in northern Wake County in 1991. He wanted a place where he could work on his projects and restore old cars.
“I’m not your average, everyday live-in-a-neighborhood kind of person. I never have been,” he said.
Cole said he co-existed peacefully with his neighbors until 2009, when neighbor James Hoffman complained to the county that Cole’s property was unkempt. After receiving the complaint, Wake County got a civil court order mandating that Cole clean up his property.
Hoffman, who has a limited view of Cole’s property through the trees for most of the year, said Friday that several neighbors have complained over the years and the county pursued the court case.
"At no time has this been a neighbor-on-neighbor issue. We had no problems with the Coles. They're fine folk. We have a problem with their property," he said.
"My wife and I regret that the Cole family must endure the hardship of Mike returning to jail for a second time as a result of his unwillingness to respond to the court-ordered property cleanup," he said. "Efforts to get Mr. Cole to clean up this property go back more than 10 years, we are hopeful that we may all be able to put this matter behind us soon."
Cole's property is difficult to see from the street. Anyone wanting to see it has to walk up the driveway, past the "private property" and "no trespassing" signs and peer through a fence.
“I have been working on it diligently. We've hauled tons, I mean literally tons of stuff out of here,” Cole said.
Eight months ago, in February, a fire destroyed Cole's two-story house.
“Everything was here. This was our home. For 20 years, we've been here,” he said.
The fire delayed the cleanup process, according to Cole, whose case went before the court five times. When the county's civil contempt case went back in front of a judge, Cole’s lawyer argued his client needed more time.
“He's not flouted the authority of the court. He's not acted willfully. He's not acted deliberately,” said attorney Jack Nichols. “But he's been out there consistently trying to remove this property.”
County attorney Scott Warren said Cole had had enough time.
“They have had, at their request, over 180 days, over six months to do this,” Warren said.
Hoffman noted that he has written letters for years to get the property cleaned up. Cole even spent 30 days in jail last year over the same issue.
"(He's) running a junkyard" without a permit in a subdivision that has homeowner covenants," Hoffman said.
Superior Court Judge Shannon Joseph sided with the county Thursday, holding Cole in contempt of court and sending him to jail for 60 days, beginning Friday.
The judge said Cole could be released early if his property is cleaned up while he is in jail. Cole says he can clean up his mess, but not from the Wake County jail.