One can't help but notice the front yard of Mike Conti's home when driving down Chestnut Tree Drive in Cape St. Claire, a tight-knit community at the edge of the Broadneck peninsula.
Scrap metal, cars, grills, signs of all sorts, trash cans, a riding lawn mower, a boat, and a waving American flag all greet passersby in the community.
If you've ever seen the A&E television show Hoarders, you have a good idea of what the place looks like.
Conti said he’s been gearing up for a “mega yard sale” this weekend, which he said would clean up the yard and put some cash in his pocket. But neighbors said his lawn has been this way for months.
On his business cards, Conti refers to himself as Mike the Scrap King, with the slogan—“Beautifying AACO one yard at a time."
Conti was formerly an elevator repairman for Otis Elevators. But when he lost his job, he ultimately turned to collecting scrap.
When I asked Conti how he had amassed his collection, he wasn't very specific.
“Recycle night. From everywhere. I find everything," he said. "Sometimes people’s houses foreclose and they end up putting everything out by the trash.”
Inside Conti’s house there are even more treasures to be found. Near a couch was a large, dangerous-looking sword, which he grabbed and held aloft for a photograph.
"How much do you think this is worth?" he asked.
Conti said he doesn't consider himself to be a collector of antiques. Now, after amassing quite a stash, he said he’s ready to sell it all.
Nearly everything in the home will be for sale, he said—except for the sword, a lamp, the refrigerator, his dog and some items related to his family.
"I've been wanting to sell it all for a while, but everyone thinks I'm mentally retarded, and no one believes in me," he said.
Conti's hobby-turned-profession has created problems for him with neighbors, the police, the county, and the Cape St. Claire Community Improvement Association (CSCIA). Some say he's more than just a neighborhood nuisance.
“This property is one of the biggest problems facing Cape St. Claire residents,” said Kathleen Mooneyhan, the president of the CSCIA's board of governors.
Conti’s yard is in violation of at least one of the homeowners association covenants —“noxious or offensive trade” is prohibited on all lots. The association even issued a press release on the property in May, calling it "an appalling violation" of community covenants, community standards and the regulations of the county.
Mooneyhan said the community is frustrated and disenfranchised by the fact that nothing seems to change, despite numerous complaints about the property.
"We are using every weapon in our arsenal for this, but it's frustrating because it just takes too much time," she said. "We know the community wants this resolved, and so does the board."
There are a bevy of legal actions in place.
There is a court order to remove abandoned vehicles, or tag them, by August, and a zoning code violation from the county's Planning and Zoning Department, which gives Conti until July 20 to clean up the yard or be issued a $250 fine, with the county attorney's office potentially pressing charges afterward.
On top of that, Conti is facing felony burglary charges for theft of items valued at between $1,000 to $10,000 from nearby homes. He has a criminal jury trial date set for Oct. 23 in Maryland Circuit Court, according to online court records.
The community association is pursuing civil litigation against Conti for covenant violations, and is working with the county on other legal options.
Lou Biondi, a Cape St. Claire resident and member of the Broadneck Council of Communities, said he spoke with Bill Bryant, director of the county's Department of Inspection and Permits, and came away optimistic.
"He seemed willing to apply all of the county's resources to alleviate the problem," Biondi said. "I was convinced that he had a strategy, and saw that he will be a dog with a bone and not let this go."
Elaine Barnhart, who has lived next door to Conti for 15 years, called him “the worst possible neighbor.” She complains of Conti's radio, which blasts rock music throughout the day and night, the view from her backyard, his language and his general demeanor, to name a few things.
“We stopped speaking the day after he cursed me out,” Barnhart said. “His favorite thing is cursing. It’s a nightmare. It’s nerve-racking.”
Barnhart said she tried to be friendly with Conti, but it never worked out. Eventually, she filed a restraining order against him. There are now trespassing charges against Conti for violating that order.
Amy Juras, a real estate agent in the area, said the condition of Conti's yard has cost her a few clients.
"I have lost four different clients, who said they are not interested in Cape St. Claire because obviously the homeowners association cannot enforce their bylaws," Juras said. "It's a perfectly centralized location if you wanted to spoil the image of this entire area."
Juras said she fears what neighbors might do if nothing changes.
"I worry about my community members becoming vigilantes," she said. "This kind of thing can escalate. It already has escalated."
'The Color of Blood'
Conti says he is afraid of what people might do to him.
“People are trying to destroy me,” he said. “Just look at my truck.”
The driver's side of Conti’s pickup truck is covered in red paint, an act of vandalism Conti believes was done to intimidate him.
“It’s red—you know, the color of blood,” he said. “That’s how I see it anyway.”
Conti said he is counting on the yard sale to get some of the items out of his yard, and also to make some money from the deal. He’s prepared a banner to be displayed for the weekend, and he’ll be posting all about it on Craigslist gearing up for the big day.
If you’re interested in Conti’s mega yard sale, take a drive down Chestnut Tree Drive in Cape St. Claire. You can’t miss it.