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Couple, county reach deal on blighted land

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Attorney Mike Martinez explains Tuesday to the media what is going to happen to Robert Starkweather's blighted property in Magna.

Attorney Mike Martinez explains Tuesday to the media what is going to happen to Robert Starkweather’s blighted property in Magna.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

MAGNA — The two-day standoff is over between Salt Lake County and an elderly couple who defied a court order to leave their home.

The Salt Lake County Planning and Zoning Commission and the sheriff's office agreed Tuesday afternoon to stop their cleanup of the property near 7400 West and 2200 South and leave. In return, Robert and Jannetje Starkweather agreed to come up with an acceptable timeline by Friday for fixing the property on their own.

"The Starkweathers believe they have enough community and family help to take over the cleanup," said planning and zoning associate director Del Swensen. "They'll bring some volunteer contractors in and bring (the house) into compliance."

If the Starkweathers can come up with an agreeable plan to clean up their land and fix their house, the home won't be bulldozed, Swensen said.

The resolution was reached after friends of the couple rallied to support the Starkweathers and Salt Lake City attorney Mike Martinez agreed to represent them.

The Starkweathers' property is littered with wooden pallets, raw sewage and other junk. Complaints from neighbors ranging from the smell to simply being an eyesore date back to 1995, according to some in the area. But the Starkweathers, both in their mid-70s, said Monday they weren't leaving.

Martinez met with the couple for about an hour Tuesday afternoon. Following his meeting he said the situation really wasn't as big a deal as it has been made out to be. The couple had felt like they were "under siege" and immediately became defensive.

"The Starkweathers have limited means and their house is in disrepair right now, and the county wants them to bring it up to standard," Martinez said. "Really, we're all just working toward the same objective. Everyone is pitching in to work together to help them out."

The inside of the house had a few plumbing and electricity issues that needed attention, Martinez said. But he also said it was clean, had running water and all the bathrooms flushed, even though the septic tank did not work.

"This is not a place where we're looking at someone living in a rundown, dilapidated, no-electricity situation," he said.

As for the wood pallets littered all over the property, Martinez contended the wood simply wasn't stacked correctly. He said the couple collected the pallets both for resale and for their wood-burning stove.

Martinez said he contacted AFL-CIO head Ed Mayne Tuesday to act as a third party to determine what repairs needed to be made and how to fix them. The county has also agreed to help the Starkweathers fix their home with grant money, Martinez said, something the couple previously refused.

Robert Starkweather had previously told county officials he couldn't make any upgrades to his house unless God told him to do it. Martinez said Tuesday that what Starkweather really believes is that he has a God-given right to do what he wants with his land.

Also on Tuesday, friends of the Starkweathers began rallying support of their own. One man, who said he was a family friend but wished to remain anonymous, admitted the property probably was in violation of county ordinances. But he blamed much of the situation on the Starkweathers' advanced age and financial situation.

As for the piles of wooden pallets, the man claimed the Starkweathers allowed commercial businesses to dump them on their property to avoid paying a fee at the Salt Lake County landfill.

He said Jannetje Starkweather was raised in the Netherlands and lived there during occupation by Nazi Germany, something which may contribute to her distrust of government.

"They are putting all their trust in God. But they really need an attorney right now to protect their home," the friend said.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com