Posts Tagged ‘Derelict buildings’

People lined up all down the block for The Sampler Inn’s cafeteria food and convivial atmosphere. Photo courtesy Historical Society of Ocean Grove

By Charles Layton  @Blogfinger

By the time the Township demolished it in 2009, The Sampler Inn had stood at 28 Main Avenue for approximately 90 years. It was one of Ocean Grove’s most beloved institutions. As you can see from the photo above, people used to flock to its cafeteria for a traditional fare that included whipped sweet potatoes, creamed spinach, macaroni and cheese, lamb chops, ham with raisin sauce, a rich array of desserts and, at breakfast, among other things, a generous selection of hot cereals.

But the years took their toll. When The Sampler’s absentee owners filed for bankruptcy in 2006, the place had become a first-class public nuisance — boarded up, empty and gutted on the inside, unmaintained, with a caving-in roof and other structural atrocities. Teenagers broke into the place in summer to prowl and explore. Vagrants camped there in winter, sometimes drinking, sometimes warming themselves before sterno stoves.

Jeff Dean, who lived on Heck Avenue just behind The Sampler, said if the place had ever caught fire “the whole neighborhood would have been gone.” Another neighbor, Danny Beaman, said, “I remember being in bed and hearing noises and getting out of bed and running to see if The Sampler was on fire.” Some of the people living closest to The Sampler were disabled or elderly; they’d have had a tough time escaping from a raging inferno. “The Sampler was two feet from my mother’s house,” said Lisa Noll. (Her mother was in her early 80s, and a man living in the same house was in his 90s.)

The neighbors, especially those on Heck in the second block from the beach, fought for years against the menace that The Sampler had become. It was a battle to defend their properties, their peace of mind and, as they saw it, their very lives. But it was also a battle for the common good of Ocean Grove, alerting people in this town, and some people in government, to take derelict buildings more seriously.

One recent evening some of those Heck Avenue neighbors got together over refreshments in Beaman’s living room and relived their experiences. Theirs is a story that needs to be recorded and remembered. Lessons can be learned about the power of aroused and well-organized citizens.

Some (but by no means all) of the veterans of the Sampler campaign. Front, l. to r.: Kirsten Beneke, Sue Beneke, Danny Beaman, Carmen Rivera and Lisa Noll. Standing: Jay Shapiro, Gloria Wigert and Jeff Dean. Photo by Mary Walton

Some had fond memories. Although Sue Beneke, who lived right next door to The Sampler, endured years of anxiety and inconvenience, even she considered the place “a beautiful institution.” Her daughter, Kirsten, recalled how, as a child, she would go to the side door of the kitchen every morning and get a muffin for breakfast. Another Heck resident, Carmen Rivera, volunteered to teach English to a young girl from Poland who worked at The Sampler. Relations were usually neighborly, and when a problem arose people tended to seek constructive solutions. Beneke said some of the college kids who worked in the kitchen used to play a radio very loud at 5 o’clock in the morning. “So I bought them all radio head sets, and they actually used them,” she said.

Still, even before the place became a total wreck, there were problems, many associated with the kitchen, which faced Heck Avenue. One problem was rodents.

Beaman: “I used to watch from my front porch. There was a hole in the back wall where the cats would line up and wait for the mice to run out. It was amusing; they would wait in line patiently for the next mouse to come out, and then they would go chasing after it.”

Noise and truck pollution were less amusing. At a certain point, the neighbors said, large trucks started arriving at 5 a.m. to deliver goods to the kitchen. They would leave their engines running, filling the street with foul-smelling exhaust.

Then there was the leaking garbage — “dumpster juice” and “dumpster puddles” they called it. The odor drove people inside. “I just remember one summer day all of us had to go inside our houses because the garbage was leaking out of the dumpster,” Jay Shapiro said. “It was bad.”

Sue Beneke recalled “big canisters of fat” in back of the kitchen. “We tried to build a fence around the back of the kitchen, that would hide the fat vats and the dumpsters and everything,” Beneke said. “We drew the design. And then I went over there to the owners and said, ‘All the neighbors will even pay for it. We’ll pay for this beautiful Victorian fence for the kitchen, take the loading dock down.’ We were even going to make it like a French bistro. But they would not let us do it.”


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This building at 17 Spray Avenue had been cited as unsafe as far back as the 1980s. On September 2, 2008, it burned. Coaster photo

By Charles Layton

We’ve had some lively conversation on this website in recent days about the need (or lack of need) to take action when properties in Ocean Grove are abandoned or neglected by their owners and fall into disrepair.

Some people think it’s our duty as citizens to call attention to such problem properties. Others disagree; that kind of vigilance, they say, amounts to harassment of those who can’t always afford to keep their homes in pristine condition.

However, the fact is that an empty building in disrepair is more than just an eyesore or a drag on local property values. In Ocean Grove, especially, it can be an urgent danger.

Let’s look at some history. In 2008, a spectacular fire destroyed an old storage building at 17 Spray Avenue. That fire severely scorched and peeled the siding on a home directly across the street and also did minor damage to another nearby home. The Coaster quoted Mayor Randy Bishop, who lives nearby, as saying that the fire “could have been a tremendous disaster.” Other neighbors agreed. It was lucky, they said, that the wind blew the flames and embers back toward Wesley Lake instead of the other way, toward the town.

That fire shouldn’t have happened. The public record shows that Neptune Township tolerated what it knew to be dangerous conditions at 17 Spray for many years before the building finally went up in flames.

A Township inspection in 1988 found “a large pile of lumber and other combustible debris” on the grounds. The owner, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, was cited, and the dangerous condition was abated. However, the abatement was temporary. The building continued to deteriorate. In 1999 a Township inspection found, among other problems, cracked masonry walls, roof tiles falling onto the sidewalk and trash and debris all over the yard.

In the ensuing years numerous summonses were issued. Fines were threatened but not imposed. In fact, the Township backed off. At one point the Township had threatened to take the owner to court, but in 2005 all summonses were dismissed, and all fines were forgiven.

In February of 2008, the Township inspected the building again, found it to be “unsound” and “unsafe” and ordered the CMA to either demolish it or correct the unsafe conditions. Parts of the roof were collapsing and parts of the building were open to the weather, according to a Township citation, “causing interior deterioration of structural elements.”

But negotiations resulted in further delays until finally, on the night of September 2, 2008, fire destroyed the whole thing.

To some Ocean Grovers, the lesson was that tolerating a persisting dangerous condition is not a virtue.

Here is another piece of history. When The Sampler Inn at 28 Main Avenue, closed and neglected, fell into serious disrepair, neighbors on Heck Avenue took action. They organized and fought to have the problems corrected. Township inspections showed that the building was in terrible condition and could easily catch fire. Bill Doolittle, Neptune’s director of code and construction, said his greatest fear was a “fire storming” effect, in which “fire jumps from one building to the next to the next” across Ocean Grove.

And so, in 2009, despite strenuous resistance by the owners, the Township had the building demolished.

If the Spray Avenue fire taught us the danger of complacency, the Sampler experience proved that if citizens and neighbors organize and fight –and if they persist — it’s possible to resolve such problems. (A corollary lesson is that the government acts more forcefully if it is prodded and pushed by citizens.)

The above examples, along with others, have led many Ocean Grovers — and some Township officials — to the firm belief that citizens must act as watchmen. When a problem arises, they must make it known. And when an owner tries to minimize the problem, it’s unwise just to take him at his word. (The lawyer for The Sample Inn, at a public hearing, characterized the problems there as “aesthetic” in nature.)

The issue is not harassment of well-meaning owners who can’t afford to paint their homes as often as we might like. And a group of citizens petitioning for redress of a problem is not akin to a “lynch mob,” as some have suggested. Portraying it as such evades the point, which is that a derelict building is better dealt with before the problem becomes truly dire.

There is a sweet spot between petty harassment of our neighbors and the kind of indulgence that led to the Spray Avenue fire. As we argue individual cases, let’s do so in that reasonable context.

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1. Neptune Township Attorney Gene Anthony said Monday that before signing a consent order to rehab the Park View Inn, one of its owners, Marshall Koplitz, told the Township that funding was available for the project. Anthony was responding to a question at the Township Committee meeting, posed by Kennedy Buckley of Ocean Grove. Buckley cited a recent Blogfinger story (read it here) revealing that in 2009 the owners had defaulted on a $2.75 million renovation loan for the Park View, and questioning whether they could get another such loan now. Kennedy asked whether Koplitz had “hornswaggled” the Township and the Municipal Court by failing to disclose the default and the litigation that followed.

Anthony said Koplitz “specifically indicated the availability of funding” before he signed the consent order in July. He said Koplitz had originally wanted the entire deal with the Township to be contingent on his ability to get funding, but the Township refused to agree to that contingency. Therefore, Anthony said, if Koplitz fails to get bank financing it will put him in default on the entire agreement and subject him to heavy financial penalties.

2. The hot topic at the Township Committee meeting Monday night had to do with sagging pants worn by some of Neptune’s young men  — a fashion statement characterized by the visibility of undershorts (and sometimes more). The Mayor’s Youth Advisory Cabinet has taken a stand against the practice, and on Monday the Committee voted in favor of a resolution condemning it.

This is what they're talking about

The Committee’s action does not make the wearing of sagging pants illegal; rather, it encourages educators, parents and community leaders to “strongly discourage the practice.” Members of the public came to the microphone, mostly in support of the resolution. But two audience members said that, while they personally dislike sagging pants, they consider it an overreach for the government to try to dictate styles of dress.

The resolution states that “the origins of sagging pants comes from prison inmates being denied belts because of the risk of belts being used to commit suicide and as a sign of sexual deviant behavior within prisons.”

3.The Historic Preservation Commission is considering an application by local builder Jack Green to demolish part of the derelict house at 91 Cookman Avenue. Green and a partner bought the notoriously run-down property this summer and said they would restore it to something resembling its original condition. As a first step, Green asked the HPC on Tuesday night for permission to demolish a shed in back of the house and also a rear wall and other parts of the house itself, which Green says are structurally unsound due to water damage, rot and damage from a fire in the house’s northwest corner 11 years ago.

Fire damage inside the upstairs bedroom of 91 Cookman. Photo by Paul Goldfinger

Some HPC members had concerns because once Green demolishes the rear wall he intends to expand the house’s footprint farther into the back yard. That expansion will require a separate HPC application later on.

The Commission members asked Green to let them take a walking tour of the house, so they can see for themselves the extent of the damage. After doing that, they’ll resume consideration of Green’s application at the HPC’s next meeting, on December 13.

The 91 Cookman house dates from 1895, according to tax records. It is considered a “key structure” in the Historic District of Ocean Grove, meaning it is listed in Neptune’s Master Plan as having special architectural importance.

4. Journalism note: The Asbury Park Press has all but abandoned coverage of Neptune Township government, including Ocean Grove. Their reporter Michelle Gladden used to attend all the Township Committee meetings, and she used to write stories about the Grove from time to time, but since she was reassigned this summer, following the latest staff downsizing, no one from the APP shows up anymore. About the only Neptune stories one finds in that paper now are routine crime items.

However, the Coaster’s Don Stine is still on the Neptune beat. Every issue of that independently-owned weekly contains Neptune stories, and almost always one or more stories specific to Ocean Grove. (His piece on sagging pants is on page one this week.)

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By Charles Layton

I’m going to ask you all a question, but first I’m going to ask that you try to put yourself in the position of Marshall Koplitz.

Assume that you had a real estate business and that you owned a large, uninhabited building in Ocean Grove, specifically, the Park View Inn on Sea View Avenue, and that this building had been in a run-down state for years.

Further assume that the neighbors were so concerned about it – particularly due to the potential for fire – that 33 of them had signed a petition calling your building “an eminent danger” and urging the Township to take action. Assume that the HPC had also asked the Township to take action.

Now assume that the Township had summoned you to court and forced you to agree to rehab the building. But assume that, concurrently, the Ocean Grove Board of Fire Commissioners had ordered you to install an automatic fire alarm system. And that, for 14 months, you had been refusing to do that. And that the County Construction Board of Appeals had agreed with the fire commissioners, going so far as to state, in its official written opinion, that your building was “extremely susceptible to the rapid spread of fire” and was “a significant threat” to neighborhood residents.

Assume that since May 16 of this year, penalties had been accruing against you for failing to install that fire alarm system. Assume that as of September 8 those penalties amounted to $114,000, and you still hadn’t installed the system. And assume that since then penalties had been increasing at the rate of $1,000 for every day that you fail to install the system.

If you were Marshall Koplitz, what would you do? Photo by Charles Layton

And, finally, assume that the fire commissioners are asking the Superior Court of New Jersey to order you to pay your due penalties (which would amount to $146,000 as of this Monday, by my count) and also to install that alarm system without further delay.

Here is my question: Would you give in and install the alarm system? Or, even as the penalties mount, would you continue to fight on, possibly increasing the chances of another catastrophic fire in Ocean Grove? Possibly risking people’s lives?

This morning I telephoned Marshall Koplitz’ attorney, Michelle Lebovitz Lamar of the Sterns & Weinroch firm in Trenton, to ask about all that. “I prefer that you speak with Mr. Koplitz directly,” she said. “It’s a no comment.”

I have left a message for Mr. Koplitz at his office in Asbury Park.


For background information about this issue, go here and also here.

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By Charles Layton

Rear view of 35 Embury. Photo by Charles Layton

We have learned that one of Ocean Grove’s worst derelict buildings — the home at 35 Embury Avenue — has been purchased by a Long Branch company and that it most likely will be torn down.

The closing took place last Friday. Purchase price was said to be $205,000.

A permit would be required to demolish the property, but people both in and out of the Township government seem to agree that the building is unsafe and should be torn down.

On August 11, then-owner Beatrice Albano of Brooklyn, NY, pleaded guilty in Municipal Court to maintenance violations and agreed to correct the problems within two months. However, on August 30 Neptune Township’s Construction Department issued an unsafe structure notice for the property. Committeewoman Mary Beth Jahn said at the time that Bill Doolittle, head of Construction, did not believe the building could be saved.

The unoccupied house is quite large. According to real estate records it has 13 bedrooms and three bathrooms. It has rotted wood throughout. Huge areas lack paint and boards have pulled loose, leaving large cracks and holes for rain to enter the building.

Local attorney William Gannon told me that he had the opportunity to go on a walk-through inspection of the place a couple of months ago and “it is in very bad structural condition.” Asked what the problems are, Gannon said, “You name it.” He said the floors were so unsafe that he could not even complete his inspection.

Another person we spoke to who had been inside the place said it had been neglected for so long that pigeons and seagulls were nesting in there, with all of the filth that implies. “Horrible” was this witness’s general description.

People familiar with the sale say that the buyer intends to build a single-family home, assuming the Township gives permission for demolition of the existing building.

With this sale, 35 Embury joins two other problem buildings in Ocean Grove that seem finally to be on a path toward some kind of resolution. The derelict home at 91 Cookman Avenue was purchased in June by local developer Jack Green, who plans to renovate it. And the absentee owners of another problem building — at 80 Main Avenue — agreed earlier this month to renovate, following a lengthy legal struggle with the Township.

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Burned upstairs bedroom

By Charles Layton

Photos by Paul Goldfinger

For all the months we’ve been writing about the abandoned house at 91 Cookman Avenue, and for all the years neighbors have complained about it, we’d never gotten an inside look at the place.

Until now.

On Wednesday, the new owner, Jack R. Green III, and his son and associate in the building business, Jack Green IV, gave us a tour. Workmen had hauled out most of the debris – about two dumpster loads — so what we saw was a good deal neater than the place’s actual condition during the past decade.

Even so, what a dump!

At some point during the period of its deterioration a fire broke out on the second floor, and the damage is still apparent – blackened walls, doorways and ceilings.

Two Jacks on the porch at 91 Cookman Avenue

The house had been owned by a New York City woman who inherited it from her parents but lacked the means to maintain it. Jack Green IV purchased it on June 30 with the intention of renovating.

One of his architects, Carolyn Young, was there on Wednesday taking measurements with a tape. She and another architect, Cate Comerford, will prepare plans in the coming days. Green said his team will submit the plans to Neptune’s zoning department and then to the Historic Preservation Commission. If all of that goes well, he said he’d like to begin work by mid-December.

His hope is to have the place restored and ready to put on the market by summer. Green has considerable experience restoring old houses in Ocean Grove, and he does not seem intimidated by this one. “This is an easy one,” he told us.

According to the previous owner, the house dates back at least to 1891. It is considered a “key structure” in the Historic District of Ocean Grove, meaning it is listed in Neptune’s Master Plan as having special historical and architectural importance.

Green paid $182,000 for the property. He said it probably will cost him at least $300,000 to renovate, not including taxes and overhead. When it’s done, he will probably put it on the market for about $620,000, he said.

This house is one of a handful of deteriorated properties that have caused concern in Ocean Grove in recent years. Its renovation will constitute a rare victory in the struggle to save these crumbling old architectural gems.

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By Charles Layton

We continue to receive comments about the “Demolition by Neglect” ordinance and questions about whether it is working and, if not, why not.

But before addressing that, some background:

Last July, the Historic Preservation Commission asked the Township to investigate four unoccupied and run-down Ocean Grove properties — 91 Cookman Avenue, 24 McClintock Street, 80 Main Avenue and 23 Seaview Avenue — to find out whether, in effect, they were being demolished through their owners’ neglect. If they are, it’s a violation of the law.

Upon receiving such a request from the HPC, according to the Demolition by Neglect ordinance, the Department of Code Enforcement is supposed to contact the owner and arrange for an immediate inspection. Code is then supposed to report the results of that inspection back to the HPC. If the inspection confirms that demolition by neglect is taking place (the law contains a definition of this) the HPC then orders the owners to correct the defects.

Code did not follow that procedure. It did inspect the buildings, and it found major problems, but it did not really make a determination as to whether the properties were, in fact, being demolished through owner neglect. Nor did it give the HPC a report or keep it informed by other means. For many months, people at the HPC have seemed not to know what is happening. Instead, Code followed its normal procedure under the property maintenance laws: it cited the owners for violations and, when the violations were not corrected, it issued summonses and proceeded against the owners in court. Those cases are still in court; to its credit, the Township is pressing forward with most of them.

At the last Township Committee meeting, Kathy Arlt of Ocean Grove asked the Committee why the Demolition by Neglect ordinance was not followed. Township Attorney Gene Anthony told her that the enforcement officer – Bill Doolittle, director of construction and code enforcement – had discretion under the ordinance to follow either the Demolition by Neglect procedures or those of the property maintenance laws. Doolittle’s power of discretion stems from a sentence in the Demolition by Neglect ordinance which states: “Nothing herein shall restrict or otherwise prohibit the Construction Official [Doolittle] from acting in accordance with applicable state regulations, building codes or municipal building codes.” (This language is not crystal clear.)

Committeewoman Mary Beth Jahn told Arlt that the problem with going the Demolition by Neglect route is that the HPC has no enforcement power, whereas Code Enforcement does: it can issue summonses. Yet the Demolition by Neglect ordinance gives the HPC the power to “direct the issuance of a … summons” to a non-responsive owner. That seems like enforcement power.

Another section of the ordinance says that if an owner fails to make repairs as ordered, the HPC may request the Township to undertake those repairs and then to place a lien on the property to recoup its costs. This also seems like a useful enforcement tool. When the Township places a lien, it then turns around and auctions off the lien to a third party, so it gets its money right back. One or two Ocean Grovers, commenting on this blog, have suggested doing that very thing with some of our derelict properties.

But the truth is, the HPC seems now to have lost its appetite for proceeding under Demolition by Neglect. The Township Committee also seems more comfortable with having Bill Doolittle call the shots. In the end, our concerns about which procedures to follow won’t matter much if the Township, one way or the other, succeeds in solving the problem of derelict houses in Ocean Grove. And we really hope it does succeed.


UPDATE: At the end of Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission, a wide-ranging discussion broke out about the Demolition by Neglect ordinance. Kathy Arlt of Ocean Grove described her efforts to get the Township to take the ordinance seriously. Members of the Commission made it pretty clear that, as a way to save derelict buildings, they consider the ordinance pretty near useless. Commission member Cathleen Crandall said such ordinances are “almost impossible to enforce.” The HPC’s chairwoman, Deborah Osepchuk, said it is almost impossible to inspect a house if the owner refuses access to the inspector, which commonly happens. Inspections, of course, are an essential part of what the ordinance is all about.

It was a painful conversation to listen to.

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The Sampler in its heyday. Photo from the Historical Society of Ocean Grove

(Continued from previous page)

The neighbors complained, negotiated and endured through a succession of owners from the 1990s into the mid-2000s. During that time The Sampler followed the general trend of the Ocean Grove hotel business, which was downward. Still, the neighbors said they were usually able to deal amicably with the various owners until, in 2004, two brothers from Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Marshall and Elliott Koplitz, acquired the property. In 2006 the Koplitz brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. By then the building was vacant and deteriorating very badly.

For a time, the Koplitzes tried to develop plans to convert the property to condominiums. This led to meetings before various governmental bodies. It was at this point that the residents became truly organized. They liked the idea that The Sampler, a historic and once-attractive building, might be saved. But when the architect proposed 15 or more condo units on the site, they recoiled. What about parking for all those residents? What about the garbage and trash so many condos would generate? Also, at this time, condos were a relatively new thing for Ocean Grove, and the residents thought condos would change the character of the neighborhood. “It was a risk,” Carmen Rivera said.

There were also concerns about the trustworthiness of the Koplitzes.

The Koplitzes had owned properties in Long Branch in the 1990s that were cited repeatedly for serious fire code violations. Outstanding fines eventually totaled more than $1 million on these properties. The Koplitzes staged a protracted court battle before settling with the city for $400,000. Many of the violations centered on the fact that the Koplitzes were packing their properties with college students. The loud, unruly behavior at some of these “animal houses,” as they were sometimes called, became widely known; charges included underage drinking, providing liquor to minors and maintaining a nuisance.

Jay Shapiro: “We were worried about whether we were going to have college kids living here. It was going to be worse than condominiums, because at least with condominiums there’d be home ownership…. But with college kids, we figured there would be drinking, partying late at night, and it would just really destroy the whole flavor of the neighborhood. I think that was what started to get us up in arms.”

The Koplitzes were more secretive than previous owners, and far less cooperative. The Sampler bankruptcy was complicated and poorly understood.  “Whenever you tried to get hold of anyone,” Sue Beneke remembered, “you never could tell who the real owners were.”

Jeff Dean said by the time he moved onto Heck, in 2006, The Sampler building was already a fire hazard. Homeless people were breaking in and occupying it. Intruders stole copper and other metal, stripping the building of anything that could be sold.

Cracking wall. Photo by Danny Beaman

Sue Beneke: “In the back yard there were so many things that they had done that were illegal.” Heavy air conditioning units were above the kitchen, she said, “and the wall was starting to break. It was just cracking and you’d watch it crack, and then they’d put a board up, and the board held it for a while.” One of the walls appeared ready to collapse, which “was terrifying,” she said, especially considering that children would often explore and play around the building.

There was a moment when the neighbors more or less concluded among themselves that if the developer would agree to a lower number of condo units — maybe as few as 10 — they would probably go along.

Shapiro: “We were willing to compromise.”

Beaman: “Because he was going to save The Sampler building.”

And then things got worse. Around 2007 the real estate market was starting to tank. And the plans for condos just went away. So did the Koplitzes. The building sat unoccupied and continued to rot. Glass fell from the third floor onto the sidewalks. Scraps from the roof went flying around the neighborhood in the wind.

The neighbors had been alerting the Township to problems at The Sampler for at least 10 years — through a series of administrations, both Republican and Democratic. But The Sampler was not the only place in Ocean Grove that was in decline. “Back in the late ’90s there was a dilapidated building on every block,” Beaman said. “So when we started complaining to the town, it was a little harder for the town to hear us because there were so many of these buildings. But I think The Sampler went to a degree that no other building in Ocean Grove went to.”

So now the neighbors took their protests to a higher level of organization. “It got to the point where we were emailing [Township Committee members] every week, and we were going down to see them in person,” Jeff Dean said. They also reached out to county freeholders, a state senator — anyone they could find who would listen. “We kept on complaining every chance we had,” said Shapiro.

“We started documenting everything,” Beaman said. “Once every three months I was emailing pictures of the roof collapsing, the walls collapsing, things falling off, and sending it to the town council.”

Rivera called 911 every time she saw teenagers entering The Sampler or hanging out on the steps. She was calling as many as three times a week. Sue Beneke sent photographs to state officials. Shapiro and Beaman became leaders in speaking out at public meetings, but others attended in support and sometimes spoke. “Just about everyone on the street at one time did something,” Beaman said.

Heck Ave. view shot by Danny Beaman. The Sampler is at right and in the background. The small derelict home on the left was attached to The Sampler. To its left, partly visible, is the Benekes' home.

By now most of the neighbors had pretty much concluded that the building could not be saved and therefore had to be demolished. This became the group’s goal. But forced demolition of someone’s private property was a drastic step. It required formal action by the Township Committee. It was not something politicians normally liked to do.

Several things were working in favor of the residents’ lobbying campaign, though. One was that almost everyone on their block was a full-time resident, which was not the norm in Ocean Grove. This made it easier for them to persist, year after year and in all seasons. Emails flew back and forth. They strategized constantly while sitting on their porches. They did their research, built a case.

Another thing that worked for the neighbors, they said, was that Marshall Koplitz, by his hostile behavior, had alienated Township officials.

Jeff Dean: “Koplitz started screwing with them. His lawyer actually attacked the integrity of the officials in meetings, openly attacking their credentials and everything else.” By contrast, the neighbors tried to present themselves as firm and determined but also reasonable and respectful.

Really, though, The Sampler was now in such bad shape that no one could deny the truth. Jay Shapiro remembers a particularly effective speech that resident Donny Noll made one evening. The Nolls had been trying to sell their house, and their realtor had told them that being on the same block as The Sampler severely diminished the market value. Noll told officials, “I cannot sell my house because of that eyesore across the street.”

A resident who lived on Main Avenue got up at a meeting one night and said, “My daughter’s bedroom is five feet from The Sampler. Can you guarantee me that my child will be safe?” Such arguments were irrefutable.

At last, in 2009, the Township Committee declared that The Sampler was “a danger to life and health” and had to be torn down. Fire and code officials affirmed that the building could easily go up in flames. There was no fire alarm system, one inspector testified, and “depending on wind conditions, you could lose the entire block if a fire started.”

The Koplitzes denied all of that and appealed the Committee’s decision in court, but to no avail.

On the day a bulldozer, hired by the Township, went to work knocking down The Sampler, Danny Beaman was on his porch snapping photos and emailing them to people who were out of town. People emailed him back, saying, “Send more. Send more. ”

In the end, though, the neighbors both rejoiced and mourned. “It was sad,” Susan Bell recalled.

“A bittersweet victory,” said Shapiro.

“I never felt like we won,” Beaman chimed in, “because if we’d won they would have taken care of the property.”

After The Sampler’s destruction, the zoning of the site reverted to single-family homes. It is likely that such homes will be built there eventually.  “Whatever goes up there,” Beaman said, “we’re not going to be afraid of it. And that’s the big thing.”


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Carol Weisz, owner of the controversial derelict property at 91 Cookman Avenue, went before the Historic Preservation Commission last night seeking approval for exterior repairs. Kathy Arlt of Ocean Grove attended the meeting as a citizen reporter for Blogfinger, and filed this report.

By Kathy Arlt

Carol Weisz basically resubmitted the same application she had made in 2007. It included second-story porch replacement, railing and column replacements on both the bottom and second-floor porches, window replacements, new roof, new back staircase, new doors, trim repair/replacement and painting.

That application was approved in July of 2007, but no work was done because Ms. Weisz reported that she had financial difficulties.

Because the house is a “key structure,” which means it is of special historic and architectural significance, the standard for repairs is exact replacement of architectural elements, and Ms. Weisz was told that many of the proposed samples she supplied were incorrect and that others will probably require custom woodwork to duplicate.

She promised to start the repair work as soon as her application is approved.

While Weisz seeks to meet the requirements of the HPC, she remains in a parallel struggle with Neptune Township’s Code Enforcement Department. Last year Weisz received citations for problems that included rotted wood and unsound porches and other structural features. A Municipal Court judge dismissed the case on January 20, but Code Enforcement has since refiled that case.

The house has been uninhabited for some 11 years and has been a source of continuing complaint from neighbors. It is one of four uninhabited run-down buildings in Ocean Grove that has attracted the special concern of the HPC, which hopes to see those structures repaired and saved because of their historic importance.

Weisz lives in New York City, where she works as a teacher.

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William Doolittle (right) addressing the Home Owners Association. Committeeman Randy Bishop looks on. Photo by Mary Walton

By Charles Layton

Saturday, February 26 — Today’s meeting of the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association featured a wide-ranging discussion of derelict buildings — how the Township addresses the problem, why it takes so long to get results, and how citizens can help.

The guest speaker, William Doolittle, said when he became Neptune’s director of Code and Construction two years ago, he compiled a list of more than 40 deteriorating structures needing immediate attention. (Around City Hall, it’s known as “the ugly list.”)

“We’ve gotten rid of about half of those structures,” he said, either by demolishing them or forcing the owners to make repairs. The only such building to be demolished in Ocean Grove, he said, was the Sampler Inn in 2009.

Because of budget cuts, Doolittle’s staff of six building inspectors was reduced to three last year, and the number of secretaries in Code Enforcement was cut from two to one. Doolittle told me before the meeting that he didn’t expect these staff cuts to reduce the number of inspections his department conducts for code violations. However, Doolittle and Committeeman Randy Bishop, today’s other guest speaker, said the loss of staff may make Neptune more dependent on citizens’ tips.

“We count on you guys greatly for your eyes and your ears, to let us know what’s going on out there,” Doolittle told the group. When one member of the audience said it is sometimes difficult for citizens to know what constitutes a code violation, Bishop said, “If it looks bad enough to you, report a violation.”

Doolittle said it’s helpful if the person reporting the problem can provide photos. He said the identities of persons reporting on their neighbors’ properties will be kept confidential.

Both officials spoke of the time-consuming nature of the Township’s efforts to force an owner to save a deteriorating building.

Audience member Kathy Arlt spoke for many when she asked why the Township seems to allow buildings to reach an extreme state of disrepair before taking serious action. “Why aren’t violations being written earlier?” she asked.

Neither Bishop nor Doolittle quite came to grips with that question, but Doolittle did try to explain some of the procedural barriers to quick action against a derelict building owner. Sometimes, he said, the owner is deceased, or the building is owned by a corporation and it is hard to determine who is the responsible person. Sometimes an owner escapes into bankruptcy. He also spoke of stalling tactics used by some recalcitrant owners. For instance, owners will give his department evidence that they have ordered materials to make repairs, or claim they are in the process of filing a repair proposal with the HPC, in order to get a delay in enforcement; then they will fail to follow through with those plans.

Bringing an owner to court, with all of the legal impediments involved, can take as long as a year, he said, and then after the Township does obtain a court order, the owner can appeal.

“So you can see the frustrations,” Doolittle said. “It may seem like we’re sitting on our hands, but that’s not the case.”

Bishop said the law provides elaborate protections of a property owner’s rights. “That’s how the system works,” he said. In extreme situations, the Township Committee has taken control of an unsafe building in order to have it demolished, Bishop said, but “it’s not something the governing body does frivolously.”


Several reports by HOA officials followed the main speakers. Barbara Burns reported that the organization hopes to have a new website up and running by the end of March. She showed screen projections of what some of the site’s pages will look like. The site will allow people to send questions to the HOA. People will also be able to sign up to receive email notices of meetings and other information, she said, and the minutes of meetings will be published

Ann Horan, the HOA treasurer, said annual membership dues will be increased this year from $8 to $10. This is because the organization’s expenses are starting to exceed its income. The HOA has been losing members, she explained.

Joan Caputo, newly appointed as a trustee, will head a membership committee that will seek to recruit new members.

Joan Venezia heads a new six-member committee on the North End Redevelopment. The committee, she said, will be seeking ideas on how to make the project “more favorable to the residents” of Ocean Grove. Anyone wishing to pass along a suggestion, idea or concern to this committee can send an email to OGNorthEnd@gmail.com.

Eventually, the committee will bring a set of recommendations before the membership. Once approved, those will be passed on to the Township officials who are negotiating the project’s details with the developers.

And finally, Kennedy Buckley, an HOA trustee, is collecting suggestions for improving Ocean Grove’s parking situation. Anyone with an idea to share can email Buckley at poppop.12@verizon.net.

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80 Main Avenue has been neglected for years. Once there was a fire inside, the lawyer says. Photo by Charles Layton

By Charles Layton

THURSDAY, February 24 — The owners of 80 Main Avenue pleaded guilty today to a list of property maintenance violations dating from July of last year. However, under an unusual agreement with Neptune Township, the owners will be allowed to seek permission to tear the place down rather than repair it.

The property, a former doctor’s office, has been empty and deteriorating for several years. The owners’ attorney, William Gannon, told Blogfinger that it is in very bad condition. He said it has a hole in the roof and there was once a fire inside. He said the owners have tried to sell the property and at one time last year had a serious buyer, but the purchase deal fell through. According to Gannon, owning the building has become a major burden for the owners. “If you know anyone who wants to buy it, let me know,” he said. (He said he didn’t know what the asking price might be.)

For its part, Neptune Code Enforcement has been trying to get the owners, Hal Ornstein and Mark W. Ornstein, to address a list of violations including rotted or missing wood, peeling paint and shingles missing or broken. The Township would like to see the building saved if possible. It is on the Historic Preservation Commission’s list of properties considered to be of architectural and historic importance. It is one of Ocean Grove’s “century homes,” so called because they were awarded plaques in 1976 identifying them as 100 years old at that time.

For much of the past year, the Township has issued citations and imposed fines against the owners, and today the case finally came before Judge Robin Wernik in Municipal Court. Standing before Wernik, Gannon and the Township’s attorney, Gene Anthony, explained that they had reached a plea agreement.

Under the agreement, the owners pleaded guilty to the violations subject to a $1,250 fine. However, $1,000 of that fine is suspended on the condition that the defendants apply to the HPC for permission to demolish the building. Because of the building’s historic significance, Township officials seem to think the HPC might well refuse to approve such an application. Therefore, the defendants are also required, simultaneously, to file for permission to make the required external repairs. Both applications must be made within one week.

Anthony explained that, under the plea agreement, once an HPC decision is made either way, the owners will have 30 days to act — that is, to demolish the building or to make repairs, whichever the HPC requires. If they do not, the owners would have to pay the suspended portion of the fine — $1,000 — and Anthony would go back to court and ask Wernik to enforce the Township’s violation order.

Speaking with Gannon after his court appearance, I asked what the owners would do with the property if the HPC allowed them to demolish the building. He said he didn’t know, but he said the property is zoned for single-family housing.

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