Posts Tagged ‘EDITORIAL: Demolition by Neglect’

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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