Posts Tagged ‘Manchester Inn fire’

By Charles Layton and Paul Goldfinger

Those of you who’ve read Yvette Blackman’s recent story on the investigation of the Surf Avenue fire probably drew some conclusions. One conclusion might be that too many questions remain unanswered about that fire, and that the county prosecutor’s office and the county fire marshal’s office have done an incomplete job of investigating its cause. Another might be that officials in those offices are embarrassed by their shortcomings in this regard, which would explain why they keep stalling and refusing to comment when faced with simple, reasonable questions.

When an assistant county prosecutor tells a reporter, “We don’t disseminate reports,” and when the county fire marshal won’t even return her call, one can only conclude that the officials consider their investigative findings to be none of the public’s business.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen such disregard of the public’s right to vital information. Those same offices behaved similarly following Ocean Grove’s previous massive fire, the one at the Manchester Inn in March of 2010. For months after that event, Blogfinger made multiple inquiries that went unanswered. Finally, one day, we happened to meet a man from the prosecutor’s office on the street, who was in Ocean Grove on another case, and we asked him about the Manchester investigation. He told us the investigation was finished, and that his office had found nothing suspicious. That was all the people of Ocean Grove ever heard about what caused the Manchester fire. No details. No official written report of any kind.

It turned out, however, that there was something suspicious about the Manchester fire. In September of last year, The Coaster reported that no record existed of a fire inspection at the Manchester in 2009, the year before the fire. The Coaster noted that, by law, such inspections of hotels are required on an annual basis.

The paper also noted that the Manchester had the type of alarm system that automatically places a call to a private alarm company in case of fire. It noted that a private citizen, not the alarm company, had reported the Manchester fire. The implication seemed to be that if the alarm system was not working properly, and if an inspection had been made in 2009, as required, the inspector could have discovered that problem and had it corrected prior to the fire.

If The Coaster’s story was correct, someone may have fouled up very badly, perhaps with tragic consequences.

You’d think this issue would scream to high heaven for further investigation by the fire marshal’s office and county prosecutors. But officials in those offices refused to comment to The Coaster on the lack of a fire inspection record. In the year that has passed since then, they still have said nothing on the subject. We remain in the dark.

It is obvious from recent comments on this website that many people in Ocean Grove have little confidence in the fire investigations conducted by these county offices. So long as public officials keep the facts to themselves, behaving as if they have something to hide, people will naturally be suspicious and distrustful. As they should be.

If the reason for the seeming laxity of these two investigations is that our fire investigators lack sufficient knowledge of fire chemistry and fire dynamics, then the county should upgrade its standards and give its people more professional training. In the meantime, though, either the county or Neptune Township would do well to engage a skilled team of outside, unbiased professionals to conduct independent, thorough investigations of both those major fires. It’s clear that our own officials lack the will — and perhaps also the ability — to do a credible job. But the public needs answers.

To reread Yvette Blackman’s report on the Surf Avenue fire investigation, go here.

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NOTE: This story was updated on Monday to include comments from the property owner, Hans Kretschman.

By Charles Layton

This week, the Zoning Board of Adjustment is to consider — and probably vote on — the controversial question of what size houses should be built on the site of the late Manchester Inn.

The Manchester, as everyone knows, was destroyed by fire in March of 2010 along with five adjacent houses. At the time, local developer Hans Kretschman had an agreement to buy the place and convert it from a hotel/restaurant into a 14-unit condominium facility. But after the fire, the property’s zoning status reverted to single-family, so it was back to the drawing board.

Now, Kretschman proposes to build two single-family houses on the portion of the Manchester property that faces Ocean Pathway. (The Manchester also included a rear lot facing Bath Avenue.) However, Kretschman’s plan requires zoning variances because it violates the existing standards regarding height and the number of stories permitted, and because it would encroach into Ocean Pathway’s flared setback area. (The “flared setback,” which widens toward the ocean from Central Avenue to Ocean Avenue, is one of the unique original features of Ocean Grove’s town plan. Preservationists consider it sacrosanct.)

The Zoning Board began hearing Kretschman’s case on July 20 and is scheduled to continue the hearing on Wednesday. At the July 20 hearing, Kretschman’s attorney, Jennifer Krimko, called two architects to testify in favor of his building plans. One, Michael Calafati, a specialist in historic buildings, used old photographs in support of the argument that Kretschman’s plans were actually consonant with the architectural heritage along that particular street. Calafati said the plans were intended to reconstruct two buildings that had stood on the site at the turn of the century, which was before the Manchester existed and before Ocean Grove became a national historic district.

Krimko told the Board that she also intends to call a planner who will testify that Kretschman’s plans would preserve the architectural integrity of the area better than if he were forced to follow present zoning rules.

Several Grovers raised questions during the public portion of the hearing. Madeline Tugentman of 31 Ocean Pathway asked why Kretschman could not conform to the flared setback. She and her husband, Steven, lost their home in the Manchester fire, and when they rebuilt, she said, “we followed the rules.” Norm Goldman told the board, “This proposal is not in concert with the appearance of that entire block,” meaning that the two proposed houses would have one story more than others on that side of the street.

Another architect, Joseph Walker, testified that there was historic precedent for taller buildings on the opposite (south) side of Ocean Pathway. He cited five buildings that were destroyed by fire in 1977. “All those buildings were at least four stories — four or five stories,” Walker said.

The properties in question — two adjacent lots — are zoned for 2 1/2 stories and with a height limitation of 35 feet. Both of Kretschman’s proposed houses would have 3 1/2 stories. The one at 27 Ocean Pathway would be 38 feet 4 inches high; the other one, at 25 Ocean Pathway, would be 35 feet 11 1/2 inches high.

Earlier this year the Zoning Board rejected a proposal by Marc and Deb Marini for similar variances on their property next door to Kretschman’s lots. After losing their home at 23 Ocean Pathway in last year’s fire, the Marinis had also sought to rebuild to 3 1/2 stories. They expressed sharp disappointment when the Board refused their request for a variance.

Kretschman and his company, PH Distinctive Properties, have emerged as major players in Ocean Grove real estate in recent years. He purchased the Laingdon Hotel at 8 Ocean Avenue in 2001 and converted it to a luxury hotel. He purchased the Silver Sands Hotel at 6 Ocean in 2003 and made it his private residence. And he had just purchased the uninhabited old hotel at 27 Surf Avenue and was in the process of converting it to condos when it burned down in March of this year along with seven adjacent homes.

In an interview on Monday, Kretschman said he saw “a huge difference” between his application for variances and “other new home applications that were recently presented to the Zoning Board. We are reconstructing the images of two historic buildings that stood on that site at the turn of the century, which are within the Ocean Grove historic district’s period of significance.”

Kretschman said the structure that became the Manchester Inn had incorporated those two original separate buildings. “What we’re doing is putting back what was there over 100 years ago,” he said. The evidence for what was originally on the site  includes hundreds of photos of the interior and exterior, he said.

As to encroaching into the flared setback area, he said, “We hope to have that resolved on Wednesday.” He did not elaborate except to say that the original buildings that had stood on the site had also encroached into the setback area.

25 and 27 Ocean Pathway, looking northwest. Photo by Charles Layton

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Photo by Ed Wyzykowski

What’s pictured above is not what happened in Ocean Grove on Friday. It’s what happened exactly one year ago — March 13, 2010 — on Bath Avenue and Ocean Pathway. Today, at the site of that earlier but equally devastating fire, new houses are rising. The following story describes what is there already and what is soon to come.

By Mary Walton and Charles Layton

One year after a pre-dawn fire on Ocean Pathway destroyed the Manchester Inn and five homes, and severely damaged two others, the future of the site is taking shape. Three new homes are already rising from the ashes and plans for a fourth await approval by the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The fate of the fifth home remains uncertain. One of the two damaged homes has been restored and work on the other is almost complete. In addition, three single family homes are slated to replace the Manchester.

This picture, taken early this month, shows (at right) the Rasmussen home on Bath Avenue all framed out. Behind it, the new Derrico home is nearly done. The Tugentman home is on the left. The hole in the ground is where a leaking oil tank was removed. Photo by Mary Walton

The first family to move back was Marc and Deb Marini and their three children, who lived at 23 Ocean Pathway. On the morning of the fire, Marc Marini was awakened by a noise. When Deb got up to check on the kids, she smelled smoke. By then the flames from the Manchester were lighting up the sky outside their window.  It was 5:01 a.m. The couple roused the children and three house guests, and Deb called 911.  Theirs was the first house to catch fire, at 5:13. At 5:20 it was gone.

“We were the only family to lose two houses,” Deb Marini said in an interview. They also owned the severely damaged house at 24 Bath, directly behind their Ocean Pathway home.  In less than four months, they renovated it and moved in, then began making plans to rebuild on the Pathway.

As with a death, Deb said, her recovery moved through stages.  “At first you’re in a euphoric stage because everybody made it out.” Then came anger as the magnitude of the loss sank in.  The Marinis had just finished a renovation of their Pathway home in time for the Christmas 2009 house tour.  “We had literally hung the last curtain,” said Deb. Now everything was gone. When her son Nicholas, 11, started fifth grade in September, he was asked to bring in a baby photo. “We didn’t have it.” Moreover, in 2007 they had gone through another devastating fire when the fireplace in their previous home in West Windsor malfunctioned. Said Deb, “You think, ‘Why me?  Lord, what are you trying to tell me?’ ” After four or five months, she said, you accept reality and move on.

Their temporary home at 24 Bath has just three bedrooms. That meant that their older daughter Sarah, 17, a senior in high school, would occupy a room with Rachel, 16. But Rachel and Nicholas were upset that their older sister would not have her own room for her final year before going off to college. The pair took a vote. They agreed to share a room.

The morning after the fire Sarah was scheduled to take the SATs. It would be, she thought, the most important day to date in her academic life. She ended up writing a moving essay as part of her college application, about how the day turned out to be important for a different reason.

The Marinis have yet to break ground on Ocean Pathway. Their house, like all the others, will be narrower than before because a new regulation requires more space between structures. To compensate for lost footage, Deb said, they are seeking a zoning variance to top their home with a full third story rather than the two-and-a-half stories permitted by law. The application is scheduled for a hearing March 16.


Prior to the fire, Hans Kretschman, owner of the Laingdon Hotel, had concluded an agreement to purchase the Manchester Inn from owners Clark and Margaret Cate and was seeking a controversial variance to build 14 condos. The assessed value of the property before the fire was $1,213,000. Last September Kretschman bought the property for $484,749, according to county records. He has since filed papers with Neptune Township subdividing the property into three lots. Kretschman did not respond to phone messages but a family member at the Laingdon Hotel confirmed that he no longer intends to try to build condos there, only three single family homes.

Kretschman’s company, PH Distinctive Properties, is leaving its footprint on Ocean Grove. According to county records, he purchased the Laingdon at 8 Ocean Avenue in 2001 for $985,000 and subsequently converted it to a luxury hotel. In 2008 he paid $695,000 for 4 Atlantic Avenue, gutted and renovated it, and sold it last year for $1,135,250. In 2003, according to records, he purchased the Silver Sands Hotel at 6 Ocean for $1,050,000 and made it his private residence. He had also recently bought the old hotel at 27 Surf Avenue from Heinz Weck and was converting it to nine condos when it burned on Friday along with seven adjacent homes.

As for Clark and Margaret Cate, they are no longer in the hotel business. Clark started work in November as marketing director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, promoting Monmouth and Ocean counties. “Even though I don’t have a business here,” Clark says, “I want people to come and enjoy the area.”


A question mark hangs over 29 Ocean Pathway, which is marked by a huge hole where an oil tank was found to be leaking last May and had to be removed. The owner, Regina Stewart, who lives in Manhattan and owns an art gallery there, did not respond to telephone messages asking about her plans.

Among the three properties under construction, the 30 Bath Avenue home belonging to long-time Grovers Martha and Joseph Derrico, who are wintering in Florida, is farthest along.  Martha said they hope to move in by May. At 12 feet in width, the new house is a foot narrower than the already skinny Derrico home that perished. That house was white. The new one will be green with burgundy trim. “Something a little different,” Martha said.

Houses belonging to Scott and Laura Rasmussen at 28 Bath and to Steven and Madeline Tugentman at 31 Ocean Pathway are also under construction. The Tugentmans, who live in Maplewood, fell in love with Ocean Grove several years ago when they won a weekend at a bed and breakfast in town. They bought their two-story home in 2009 and spent a summer there before the fire struck.  “My heart was broken,” Madeline said. “It was such a sweet little house.  It was like a piece of history was lost.” Their new house will have an additional half story to compensate for lost space. After the fire, the area “looked like a war zone,” Madeline said.  “We wanted to rebuild as soon as possible.”

Jan and Bill Knight, who own the Sandpiper Guest House at 19 Ocean Pathway, are optimistically taking reservations for July 4 and afterward. The inn, which is also their residence, was completely gutted owing to smoke and water damage after firemen punched a hole through the roof and soaked the structure to prevent the fire from spreading eastward.  Last week Jan was in town from her winter home in Florida, choosing paint colors. While it’s good to have new plumbing and wiring in the wake of the fire, she said, “I don’t recommend it as a way to get a new house.”

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