Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Derelict buildings’

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.

-0-

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.

Read Full Post »

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.”

-0-

Editor’s note: to return to the Blogfinger main page, hit your browser’s back button. Please post your comments on that page rather than here.

Read Full Post »

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.


Read Full Post »

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.”

-0-

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts

%d bloggers like this: