Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The "Pit Stop" site aka "Our Zombie Property Front and Center"

      The pressure to come out strong on my first blog is real.  So what sells better than a good Zombie movie?  Unfortunately, this Zombie doesn't just walk at night and feed on the living.  This one actually doesn't move, and is visible for all to see day or night.  And though it doesn't threaten to eat us as we pass by, it eats away at the soul of our community.  Yes, I just wrote that....very dramatic.

     The old commercial site at 1175 Lawrence Road known as the "Pit Stop" is the very definition of a "zombie property."  The only problem is that it is not tucked away in the corner of town down some industrial road. Rather, it is located right in the center of our town on our main street.  Some will argue that it is not the geographic center of our town, but emotionally it is because of where it is, how it looks and what it represents.

     When I was being interviewed by Mayor and Council for the position of Municipal Manager, we discussed this site along with several others that needed our attention.  I told them that, to me, this one is the most important project to address to improve our community (setting aside the Lawrence Shopping Center because it is privately owned by a company with a clear plan to revitalize it).  I know by making this statement many will challenge me with something that is more personal to their interests.  But I think I am on safe ground if majority rules.

      The problems with this site are complicated to say the least.  It is a site that is owned by a now defunct limited liability company whose principal member is now deceased.  Family members are handling the estate, but have no legal obligations to address any of the issues involved in this site.  There is no motivation to sell it because it currently has liens against it from the NJDEP for past remediation work and the Township for taxes owed close to $2 million.  The property, of course, is not worth anything near that amount.  Additionally, the site is still contaminated and requires extensive remediation work.

      So how can the Town get involved?  First, it can't foreclose upon the property and take over ownership because liens by the NJDEP are not extinguished in such a foreclosure action.  Leaving the amount of lien claimed, due and owing by the new owner (the Town).  In addition, if the Town would assume ownership, it assumes all responsibility for future environmental remediation costs.  I'm thinking the taxpayers would not be pleased with that obligation when we have so many other issues our taxes must address.

     To solve this problem, I contacted the deceased owner's family member and explained that the Town is motivated to improve this property.  Not surprisingly, he was interested in helping but deeply concerned that the estate (that has no real value) would incur further liabilities that may transfer to its heirs.  So the deal we struck was that if the Town (1) was able to convince the NJDEP to waive the liens it holds against the property, and the Town (2) eliminates the taxes owed, and the NJDEP (3) agrees to fund the complete clean-up of the site under the NJDEP Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund (HDSRF), the estate would (4) deed the site to the Town for $1.  His long, languishing problem is gone, and we get a clean property at virtually no cost to us.  He agreed in writing to do this.

     Our Municipal Engineer and I then met with representatives of the NJDEP, and began the application process for funding from HDSRF.  This required us to hire a site remediation firm to study the history of the site and perform testing on it to determine what the anticipated costs would be for tearing down the building and remediating the contamination.  This work was performed, and we submitted our completed application. This process took about a year to do.

      In several meetings with the NJDEP representatives, we have received very positive feedback that this is the type of site that they want to fund.  Our application was submitted approximately 8 months ago, and we have been told that a decision is imminent.   If we do receive the funding, the building comes down, the site is cleaned, the Town becomes the owner and, pursuant to the requirements of the grant, we must use the site as a passive park area.  We are good with that!

     I will end this by noting that there is a long, complicated history to many problem sites throughout our State and throughout our Town.  Our elected officials had the fortitude to charge me with addressing this issue.   There are many projects that our talented employees are working on right now that are designed to improve our community in some way.  You can't see this work that is being done, but it is.   When all of you drive by and see that site and wonder "What is going on here?"...now you know.   Let's all think good, positive thoughts while our application with the NJDEP is being considered!



The "Pit Stop" site aka "Our Zombie Property Front and Center"

      The pressure to come out strong on my first blog is real.  So what sells better than a good Zombie movie?  Unfortunately, this Zombie ...