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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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By Charles Layton

Marshall Koplitz is in trouble again.

He appears to have defaulted on terms of a consent order that binds him to rehab the notoriously run-down Park View Inn.

Neptune Township has now declared him in default on the consent order, which was issued by Municipal Judge Robin Wernik on July 28 of last year. The consent order came after years of bitter haggling and months of delays by Koplitz in the face of a previous court order.

Under terms of the July 28 consent order, Koplitz had agreed to a specific plan to revive the boarded-up and long-dilapidated building at 23 Seaview Avenue as a functioning hotel with 31 guest rooms, a commercial kitchen and a dining room/banquet hall.

The renovation was to be done in five distinct phases, with a deadline for each phase. Failure to meet any one of the deadlines subjects Koplitz and his company, 23 Seaview Holdings, LLC, of Englewood Cliffs, NJ, to a minimum fine of $35,000 plus the possibility of additional fines and penalties.

Under the second phase of the agreement, Koplitz was to have submitted complete floor plans and elevations for approval by Township authorities and the Historic Preservation Commission.

In a letter to Koplitz’ lawyer, dated March 8, Township Attorney Gene Anthony said that “notice of default is hereby given.”

According to the consent order, once a notice of default occurs Koplitz receives an additional 15 days to “cure” the default — in other words, to live up to the terms of the consent agreement. If Koplitz does not, Anthony said he will file a motion asking the court to impose the prescribed penalty.

We sent an email to Koplitz’ lawyer seeking comment, but have received no response.

For our original story on the consent order, go here.

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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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By Charles Layton

After refusing for 17 months to install a fire alarm system in his boarded-up hotel, the Park View Inn, Marshall Koplitz has finally agreed, under considerable legal pressure, to do so.

Neighbors living near the 23 Seaview Avenue property had complained for years that it was a fire hazard. In August of 2010, the Ocean Grove fire inspector discovered that the building’s automatic fire alarm system had been removed. When Koplitz refused orders to replace the missing alarm system, the Board of Fire Commissioners issued violations, began levying fines of $1,000 per day and, last September, took their case to Superior Court.

On Wednesday, Koplitz’ lawyer informed the Township that he would install the alarm system.

In a letter dated February 14, the lawyer, Michelle Lebovitz Lamar, informed Township Attorney Gene Anthony that Koplitz had arranged to have electric service reintroduced into the building, and that once that is done “The automatic fire alarm system should be operational by the end of the week.” That letter was in response to an inquiry from Anthony at the request of Committeewoman Mary Beth Jahn.

In arguments last February before the County Construction Board of Appeals, Koplitz’ attorney had argued that the building was not in danger of catching fire because the interior had been gutted and debris cleared from the floors. The Board of Appeals disagreed, stating in its written opinion that the building was “extremely susceptible to the rapid spread of fire” which would be “a significant threat of harm to neighboring structures and occupants.”

When Koplitz still refused to install the alarm system, the Fire Commissioners appealed in Superior Court. Meanwhile, the Commissioners continued to levy fines of $1,000 per day for every day Koplitz remained out of compliance. At that rate, by Blogfinger’s unofficial count, those accumulated fines would total $265,000 as of Wednesday of this week.

There was no immediate word from the Fire Commissioners as to whether they intend to ask the Superior Court to order Koplitz to pay any or all of those outstanding fines.

“This is good news,” said Ted Bell, when informed about the letter to Anthony. Bell was one of the area residents who collected 33 signatures on a petition in July, 2010, urging the Township to take action against Koplitz. “Where will the alarm monitoring system be located? The Ocean Grove firemen and the Neptune construction officials should have some input on this — it should be monitored 24 hours per day, seven days a week.”

For more on the alarm system issue, go here.

Marshall Koplitz at HPC meeting, December 13, 2011. Photo by Charles Layton

Koplitz and his brother and business associate, Elliott Koplitz, have allowed the Park View to deteriorate for many years. However, since July 28 they have been under a Municipal Court plea agreement with the Township to restore the building as a 31-room hotel. The Historic Preservation Commission has approved plans for the restoration. For background on that issue, go here and also here and here.

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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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Marshall Koplitz walking to his car after court appearance. “No comment, no comment, no comment.”

Story and photos by Charles Layton

After years of ignoring neighbors’ complaints and defying citations by Neptune Code Enforcement, years of bitter haggling with Township officials and months of delays in the face of a court order, Marshall Koplitz signed an agreement on Thursday that commits him to restore the Park View Inn as a hotel with kitchen and banquet facilities.

In exchange, the Township agreed to settle outstanding legal issues regarding the Park View, including complaints and fines.

The Park View, at 23 Sea View Avenue in Ocean Grove, is owned by Koplitz and his brother Elliott Koplitz under the corporate name 23 Seaview Holdings, LLC, based in Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

The consent order, approved by Municipal Court Judge Robin Wernik, requires the owners to undertake the building’s renovation in five phases. Failure to comply at any point would trigger a fine of at least $35,000.

Phase one is to prepare architectural plans for a hotel with 31 guest rooms, a commercial kitchen and a dining room/banquet hall. These must be submitted to the Township zoning officer and to the Historic Preservation Commission for approval. Applying for bank financing is also required as part of this phase.

Phase two requires an application, complete with plans, to the Township Construction Department.

Phases three and four deal with satisfying various legal conditions, submission of mechanical drawings and the commencement of construction.

Phase five sets time limits for completion of the work. It requires the owners to obtain a certificate of occupancy within 12 to 18 months after the issuance of construction permits.

Bill Doolittle, Neptune’s director of code and enforcement, said the agreement is “effective today,” meaning Thursday. He said the court will affix its official stamp on Monday and the order will then be submitted to the county.

The Township’s struggle to force Koplitz to maintain the Park View in accordance with the law dates at least as far back as 2007, when the Township first took him to court over code violations. Neighbors signed a petition in June of last year urging that something be done; the petition stated that the Park View appeared to have been abandoned “for the past six years” and was in such poor condition that it could “become a fire problem.”

On March 24 of this year, Judge Wernik ordered Marshall Koplitz to reach an agreement with the Township over the long list of outstanding code violations. Negotiations dragged on interminably, punctuated by defiant and profane outbursts from Koplitz.

However, following their appearance in court on Thursday and the signing of the consent order, Koplitz and his attorney, Michelle Lamar, were seen laughing and conversing amicably with Doolittle and Township Attorney Gene Anthony in the corridor outside the courtroom.

Koplitz accompanied Lamar to her car in the parking lot, held a brief conversation there and then began walking across the lot to his own car. When I sought to interview him, Koplitz turned his head and walked determinedly away, repeating the words “no comment” like a chant.

One issue not addressed in the consent order is the matter of unpaid taxes. The Township’s tax office told me this week that the Park View carries a lien of more than $63,000 due to unpaid taxes. Anthony said today that the restoration required by the consent order “provides for private financing which may allow [Koplitz] to pay off the taxes.”

Another unsettled question, of course, is how difficult it might be for Koplitz to obtain such financing. If he cannot, then it is hard to see how the terms of the agreement could be met.

The Park View has been dilapidated for years. But if Thursday’s consent order is followed in all its details, it could be restored. Photo by Charles Layton

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On Thursday, at 2 p.m., Beatrice Albano, owner of the house at 35 Embury Avenue, had been ordered to appear in Municipal Court for failing to correct a list of maintenance violations. Albano, who lives in Brooklyn, NY, didn’t show. Township Attorney Gene Anthony wanted Judge Robin Wernik to issue a warrant for Albano’s arrest, but Judge Wernik decided to set another court date and give the defendant another chance to appear. Anthony contended that this was the second time this defendant had failed to answer a summons regarding this property. Wernik said it was only the first time.

A Township inspector has found Albano’s unoccupied property to be replete with wood rot, lack of paint and broken and missing siding, among other problems. A couple of neighbors have told Blogfinger they think the building may be beyond saving. It is in a prime location, in the second block from the ocean.

— Charles Layton

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