By Joe Beck
Bryan Layman has noticed a surge in the animal population in and around his home on Apple Mountain in the last year or so.
One day he reached over to a pick up what he thought was a toy for one of his dogs. It turned out be a possum.
He also carries a vivid memory of the night his girlfriend awakened screaming in bed when a rat crawled across her pillow.
In an interview Thursday, Layman said his house is being invaded by wildlife, and he thinks he knows the source of the problem: Julia Souter's yard across the street.
"These are all clean houses around here, so we all know where it's coming from," Layman said of the wildlife.
Vehicles, appliances, and various containers occupy Soutyer's yard at 471Apple Jack Circle in Linden. An American flag is partly obscured by a bluish sheet hanging next to it on a line strung between two trees.
It's a yard where untidiness led to Souter being jailed Aug. 3 for up to six months or until she gets someone to clean it up, whichever comes first.
Layman and other neighbors of Souter interviewed Thursday cheered the crackdown by county zoning officials on conditions in Souter's yard.
While Layman is worried about a vermin infestation, other neighbors regard Souter's yard as an eyesore that erodes their property values.
"I think it's dreadful," Michelle Liston said of the yard "I've lived here for eight years, and it's been that way for eight years."
"I like my property values to go up," Liston added, "and that's not something that helps my property values increase."
County officials cited the same concerns in prosecuting Souter for violating the zoning ordinance. Assistant County Attorney Dan Whitten has said the appliances, containers and other items collected by Souter can attract wild animals and pose a threat to curious children, despite several prominent signs posted on the property warning others to keep out.
Souter, acting without an attorney, has challenged the constitutionality of the county's enforcement actions in Warren County Circuit Court and U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg.
But her courtroom crusade was halted at least temporarily when Judge Dennis L. Hupp found her in contempt of court, and she was sentenced to jail. She sent a letter the same day to U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski asking that her federal lawsuit be put on hold while she is in jail.
Layman, an ordained minister who has lived across the road from Souter for about 61/2 years, said he tried without success to reason with her and a male companion seen often on the property. They rebuffed his offers to help them clean up the yard, Layman said.
Layman and others said conditions in the yard, while far from ideal, have improved considerably since county workers cleaned it up last year.
"It was worse than it is now," said a woman who identified herself only by the first name of Kenzy. "I mean, it was a lot worse than it is now."
Another neighborhood resident, who did not want to be identified, said the county was justified in enforcing the zoning ordinance.
"It's like a junkyard," the man said of Souter's property.
Layman said he plans to visit Souter in jail and urge her to put an end to the standoff with the county by cleaning up the property.
"We didn't want it by any means to come to this," Layman said of his neighbor's jail sentence.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org