By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

A couple who were denied a demolition permit for their home on Union Street last year are suing the township, the Historic Preservation Commission, the Zoning Board and a township planning technician. 

Steven and Leah Meranus, who bought their 1905 Tudor revival home for $1.4 million in 2017, but have not lived there since October 2018, claim the house is riddled with asbestos and uninhabitable after renovations in 2018 to fix a bathroom leak led to asbestos being spread throughout the home. 

The suit also challenges Montclair’s demolition ordinance overall, contending it violates the basic tenets of real property law and that it must be “declared invalid, illegal, null, void and of no force and effect.” 

The couple has been fighting for the demolition of their home since 2020, but have been denied three times.

The suit, filed in Essex County Superior Court on Friday, Feb. 25, seeks to overturn the Preservation Commission and Zoning Board rulings on multiple counts, including claiming that two former members of the commission, David Greenbaum and Caroline Levy, should not have voted on the matter.

Reached Feb. 25, Preservation Commission Chair Kathleen Bennett declined to comment on the suit.

The couple’s demolition application in 2020 was the first to be heard by the commission since the township in 2019 passed an ordinance giving the commission authority to decide whether certain structures deemed to have historic significance can be demolished.

The commission denied the Meranuses’ two requests — in September 2020 and September 2021 — to demolish the home. The couple’s appeal to the Zoning Board in December 2021 was also denied. 

In 2018, the couple began renovating the home, including work on plumbing, installation of HVAC units and ductwork, bathroom upgrades and basement sheetrock. In the course of the renovations, their contractor, Joseph Episcopo & Sons, committed an “egregious error” that caused a water leak from the third-floor bathroom into one of their children’s closets, Leah Meranus told Zoning Board members.

The contractor removed some of the plaster walls, which contained asbestos, and set up fans to dry out the walls, but by doing so spread asbestos fibers throughout the home, Leah Meranus said. After environmental testing by Scott Higgins of ABS Environmental Service, the couple was advised to vacate the home in October 2018. 

In November 2018, the state Department of Labor’s Asbestos Control & Licensing division conducted its own testing of the home and determined that it was contaminated. The division issued a violation to the Meranuses’ contractor as a result of its findings, according to the Feb. 25 suit. 

In January 2019, while the home was vacant, piping in the master bathroom on the second floor burst, causing flooding in the bathroom, the first floor and the basement, and it continued for days until it was discovered. That further damaged the home.

The couple’s insurance company paid out $700,000 for asbestos containment and abatement to take down the walls and pull up floors, which were contaminated, Leah Meranus said. But the home still showed high levels of asbestos in tests, and the insurance company has since dropped the Meranuses, the couple said. 

The township has declared the home an “unsafe structure.”

The family has not lived in the home since October 2018, and has paid its $38,700 annual taxes, Leah Meranus said.

During the couple’s first attempt for a demolition permit in 2020, the couple did not show up for the final hearing due to what then-Township and Planning Board Attorney Ira Karasick said was “confusion with scheduling and the process,” and the request was automatically denied. 

A 20-day appeal limit wasn’t stated in the township’s demolition ordinance, so the couple missed that deadline to appeal that denial, Rich McMahon, their attorney at the time, said. 

Karasick advised the Preservation Commission to hear the couple’s request a second time because of the mixup. The second hearing resulted in a 3-3 vote, with Bennett and members Greenbaum and Levy voting against it and Jason Hyndman, Steve Rooney and Michael Graham voting for the demolition. A tie results in a denial, Karasick said.

The Zoning Board denied the couple’s appeal in December 2021, 5-2, with members Jerry Simon, William Harrison, Joseph Fleischer, Jonathan Moore and John McCullough voting no, and Jay Church and John Caulfield voting to approve the permit for demolition.

In the Feb. 25 suit, attorney Clark Guldin notes Greenbaum’s and Levy’s appointed terms to the Preservation Commission expired on Dec. 31, 2020, although they continued to serve through December 2021. 

Township officials have confirmed that their terms were up in 2020. Interim township and commission attorney Paul Burr has not responded to emails from Montclair Local on Jan. 14 and Feb. 25 on the legalities of members’ serving after the expiration of their terms. 

The suit contends that Levy and Greenbaum had no standing to participate in any commission business after Dec. 31, 2020, and that all actions and votes by them during 2021 are “illegal and invalid, including, but not limited to, [their] participation in, comment upon and vote with respect to the Meranuses’ applications.” 

Commission members noted at the second hearing that the owners were required to provide written proof of efforts to offer the home for sale as one of the conditions of granting the demolition permit. 

But Leah Meranus told the members that she was not interested in selling the home and didn’t think it even possible due to its condition. The appeal to the Zoning Board was also denied on this condition.

McMahon had maintained during the commission hearing that it was not economically feasible to remediate the house. Engineer Paul Beck of PBS Engineering said that because the exterior facades and studs were built on top of the subfloor, the exterior walls would have to be lifted and shored up to get to the subfloors. 

When asked if that could be done, Beck replied that “anything can be done,” but that although he could not supply an exact cost, the economics of full remediation would be cost-prohibitive. 

Commission members wanted to see estimates on what it would cost to remediate the building and also asked for full disclosure on the final insurance payment the couple received. 

The owners did provide the commission with letters from two contractors, Brinton Brosius and Scandic Builders, which both said the firms would not feel safe working in the structure and therefore would not take on the renovation. 

Although the couple disclosed that they had received $700,000 for the original asbestos containment and abatement, they did not reveal what the final insurance payout was.

But in a suit filed by the Meranuses against the township and Preservation Commission in November 2020 after the first denial, the document stated that the couple received a total of $3 million from their insurance company.  That suit challenged the scheduling of a second hearing that did not occur within the 45-day time limit. It also challenged whether the home fell under the definition of “historic.” 

The suit, demanding that the ordinance be declared invalid and asking that the planning department issue a permit for demolition, was denied by Essex County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Beacham in May of last year.

The township ordinance requires that before certain structures deemed to have historic significance can be demolished, a property owner must first apply for a certificate of appropriateness from the commission. 

It applies to properties listed in the 2016 Historic Preservation Element of the township master plan and the Historic Sites Inventory, as well as some structures in historic and potential historic districts, such as the Estate Section and the Walnut Street Historic District. It pertains to over 4,800 properties.

In the Historic Preservation Element, Montclair identifies 25 neighborhood areas and 13 individual properties potentially eligible for local landmark designation.

The home was probably designed by A.F. Norris, who was responsible for the houses in the area that were developed on the Russell estate, according to architect and historic preservation consultant Tom Connelly’s report to the commission.

The property is located within the First Residential Historic District, a New Jersey Register of Historic Places district. The district contains about 240 structures built between 1740 and 1932. Since the demolition law passed, the commission has been responsible to review all requests for demolitions of properties located in historic districts, as well as some other properties, such as those individually eligible for landmark designation.

In his report to the commission, Connelly wrote: “However sympathetic to the owner’s predicament, the [Montclair Historic Preservation Commission] should remain concerned that the basis of this demolition application stems from shoddy workmanship of the applicant’s own contractors during renovations, and permitting demolition would set a bad precedent for future demolitions in the historic district.

“Furthermore, the owner does not appear to have made a good‐faith attempt to sell the property to a buyer willing to undertake the balance of the remediation; it may be feasible and desirable by another owner to restore the exterior envelope while remediating and rehabilitating the interior.”

The demolition ordinance instructs the Preservation Commission to assess factors including the structural soundness of a building, the economic feasibility of restoring or rehabilitating it, the threat to public health and safety because of its deterioration or disrepair and the technological feasibility of rehabilitation.

The HPC has granted two demolitions permits since the law was passed in 2019 — for the American Legion Crawford Crews Post No. 251 and a home at 13 Wheeler St.

The owners of St. Paul’s Church on Glenridge Avenue, which has been vacant for years, have filed for a demolition permit. That application has not yet been heard.