Council pursues new law on unfit buildings

Official says action comes after building crumbled in the wind


A n ordinance designed to force owners of unfit buildings to fix them up or face fines sparked a debate at a recent South River Borough Council meeting.

The council voted last month to introduce the ordinance, but former Democratic council President David Sliker raised concerns to the council about the proposed ordinance, which will be up for adoption next week.

Sliker said he fears that the ordinance would allow the governing body to exercise police powers, and that the process of determining whether a property should be repaired or demolished would be too fast. He also said the wording makes it look like the governing body has a running list of unfit properties, though there is currently no official list.

Explaining the need for the ordinance, Republican Borough Councilwoman Suzanne Wisniewski-Buffalino cited an incident in February when the wind knocked down a building on Reid Street, a heavily used county road. She said there are other properties around the borough that could also pose a potential danger to the public.

Sliker said that current municipal ordinances and state statutes on buildings should suffice. Buffalino, however, acknowledged there are several places pertaining to unfit buildings in the borough’s ordinances, but said this action would compile them into one understandable section.

Mayor Raymond Eppinger, a Republican, said there are buildings in the borough that fall into the category of severe disrepair. This ordinance would streamline the process of dealing with structures that pose a risk to public safety, and give the governing body a way to address them, he said.

“It’s a conglomeration of the ordinances already on the books,” Eppinger said.

Buffalino said the borough has a standard method of notifying property owners of the conditions that exist. She added that this ordinance is not being considered because officials want to fix buildings.

Sliker said the ordinance goes into “new, uncharted waters” that concern him. He later told the Sentinel that this is “an eminent domain ordinance in a different skin.”

Buffalino told the newspaper that the council began to look into the matter after the incident on Reid Street, which raised concerns that another building could fall and cause damage to nearby homes or vehicles, or cause physical harm to anyone nearby.

“Something like this could have been a really terrible disaster,” Buffalino said. “… That building has been condemned for years.”

“Obviously something that the wind could knock down was not structurally sound,” she added.

The borough ultimately had to borrow money to get the debris off the roadway before the next rush hour commute, since Reid Street is a major thoroughfare, Buffalino said. She added that there is now a lien on the property that would pay for the cleanup.

“We are trying to avoid that,” Buffalino said. “It’s a lot to put up with.”

Buffalino said the borough reached out to the New Jersey State League of Municipalities in order to look through its database of approved ordinances. Some of those, in towns such as Highland Park, Glassboro and Bridgeton, were used as a model for South River’s proposed ordinance, she said.

“We always take a look at what other towns have,” Buffalino said.

Buffalino said that the borough currently has pieces of an ordinance scattered throughout its code in the housing standards and the general building codes on new construction. These can be confusing for a layperson to follow, she added, making it more difficult for property owners to conform to proper standards.

The unfit buildings ordinance would generate fees from owners of unfit properties that would be put into a demolition fund in case of emergencies, like the incident on Reid Street, Buffalino said. She said the ordinance gives officials a mechanism to deal with structurally unsafe buildings.

Under the proposal, the property owner would be sent a notice stating what needs to be addressed and for what reasons, Buffalino said. The next step, if nothing is corrected, would be to send a notice of violation.

Currently, Buffalino said that such property owners are not adequately warned of problems that need to be addressed. This ordinance establishes a procedure that ensures owners are informed of existing problems with unfit buildings well before a lien is put on the property, she said.

The ordinance also creates a committee called the Public Officer Board, which would meet regularly in order to keep track of unfit buildings. It would include the business administrator, chief of police, borough attorney and borough engineer, as well as the commissioner of health, fire inspector and code enforcement officer.

“These are all qualified people who cover different areas of a building being fit, sound and safe,” Buffalino said.

She said that this ordinance gives the owners of unfit properties the ability to fix their properties before they are demolished and a lien is put on the property. She added that those actions should be a last resort.

“These are buildings that are literally a hazard to the public’s safety,” Buffalino added. “[Eminent domain] is really not the intention of this ordinance.”

Council President John Krenzel was absent when the ordinance was introduced, and Councilman Anthony Razzano, the lone Democrat on the governing body, abstained from the vote.

A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for Aug. 11 at the council’s regular meeting.