Historic commission denies Union house razing again
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair’s Historic Preservation has denied a couple’s request to demolish their Union Street home, which has become ridden with asbestos and red-tagged by the township as uninhabitable.
On Sept. 23, for the second time, owner Leah Meranus pleaded her case to the commission, saying the couple bought the 109 Union St. house in 2017 with the intention of raising their family in it, but in 2019 renovations to fix a bathroom leak led to asbestos being spread throughout the home.
In 2020, the couple made the first request for demolition, after Montclair in 2019 passed an ordinance giving the commission authority to decide whether certain structures deemed to have historic significance can be demolished.
But due to what Township and Planning Board Attorney Ira Karasick said was “confusion with scheduling and the process,” the couple did not show up for the final hearing and that request was automatically denied.
The couple and their children have been living in hotels, with family and in rentals since 2019, Meranus said.
The Historic Preservation Commission vote was split, with Chairwoman Kathleen Bennett and members David Greenbaum and Caroline Kane Levy voting to deny the demolition request, believing that the home could be renovated to a safe condition. Members Jason Hyndman, Steve Rooney and Micheal Graham voted to approve their request, saying it would be too costly to renovate. In the case of a tie vote, the motion fails, Karasick said. Member John Reimnitz had been excused from the meeting.
Stephen and Leah Meranus bought the 1905 Tudor revival home for $1.4 million in 2017.
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 reviews all requests for demolitions of properties located in historic districts, as well as some other properties, such as those individually eligible for landmark designations.
At the Sept. 23 meeting, Leah Meranus told the commission that 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 committed an “egregious error” that caused a water leak from the third floor bathroom into one of their children’s closets, she said.
The contractor removed some of the plaster walls, which contained asbestos, and set up fans to dry out the walls, Leah Meranus said. When the contractor did so, asbestos spread throughout the home, Scott Higgins owner ABS Environmental Service told the commission. Higgins was retained by the couple to test for contamination and for further abatement.
After environmental testing, Higgins advised the couple to vacate the home. The family has not lived in the home since the end of 2018, and has paid the $38,700 annual taxes, Leah Meranus said.
In total, 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 is still testing for high levels of asbestos and the insurance company has since dropped the Meranuses, she said.
The family moved six times, spent 17 months going back and forth with the insurance company trying to remediate the property, hiring its own remediator, Leah Meranus said. During that time two more pipes burst, requiring further interior removal, which has resulted in the house basically being left as a shell, she said. Their engineer and Higgins told the family there was nothing more they could do, and that’s when they filed for demolition, she said.
A denial of a demolition by the Historic Preservation Commission can be appealed to the Zoning Board within 20 days. But that limit wasn’t stated in the township’s demolition ordinance, and so the couple missed that deadline to appeal the earlier denial, their attorney, Rich McMahon said.
Leah Meranus said all further remediation and renovations would be at the couple’s own cost and those costs would far outweigh the value of the home. They attempted to file suit against the initial contractor, who has filed bankruptcy and is no longer in business, she said.
One of the criteria considered for the Historic Preservation Commission to approve a demolition is whether the owner attempted to sell the property to someone who would renovate it, but Leah Meranus said she could not do that in good conscience, and that she and her husband were not interested in selling their property anyway.
“It’s not reasonable that you force me,” she said.
McMahon argued that the sale criteria anticipated a house that may be “dilapidated — not a toxic, red-taped home.”
Higgins said further testing throughout the duct work shows that the asbestos “is off the charts.”
Although the wood framing has been sealed, the subfloors need to be removed in order to further remove asbestos, Higgins said.
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 it 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.
Kane Levy said that because she hadn’t seen those numbers, she wasn’t convinced that the building needed to be torn down.
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.”
Greenbaum said that the owners should have attempted to sell the property, and was concerned about what they planned to replace it with. Karasick said that it was not a requirement of application for the owners to submit plans of the replacement home.
The owners also provided the commission with letters from two contractors, Brinton Brosius and Scandic Builders, which both said they would not feel safe working in the structure and therefore would not take on the renovation.
“We have followed all the rules. ... I ask you to think about the spirit of the law, to think about the community,” Leah Meranus said to the commission.
Hyndman, Rooney and Graham said they were convinced by testimony from Higgins and Beck that the structure was unsafe and the economics of remediation were cost-prohibitive. They said the permit for demotion should be granted.
“They did not act with intent [to demolish], or neglect. ... They exhausted their insurance [trying to remediate],” Graham said.
Bennett said she understood the economic hardship for the couple, but pointed to the statement by the owners’ own engineer that anything could be done.
McMahon told Montclair Local that the couple plan to appeal the decision with the zoning board within the 20-day time allotment.
“We were very disappointed but not surprised by the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision on Thursday night denying the demolition of 109 Union St,” he said. “We presented unrebutted testimony from the asbestos expert who had been working on the remediation for three years. After hundreds of thousands of dollars the property remains asbestos ridden and the only safe and economically feasible solution is demolition.
“The house has now been vacant for three years. I’m at a loss to understand how an uninhabitable, asbestos-ridden structure benefits the owners, the neighborhood or Montclair. It’s not going to improve with age.”
The Historic Preservation Commission granted a permit for demolition, its first, in August. The developer and owner of a Wheeler Street house argued that water infiltration has caused mold and structural issues, and “haphazard” renovations and additions throughout the years had removed all historical features of the 1915 home.
Karasick told the commission at that meeting that the criteria for demolition of any property would be both the historic value and the condition of the building, including its structural soundness and the technical feasibility of rehabilitation.
In October, the commission is set to hear a request to raze St. Paul’s Seventh Day Christian Church on Glenridge Avenue. The church was built by Swedish settlers active in the building trade in 1896 and is listed on the Montclair Historic Sites Inventory, but has been abandoned for decades. The applicant’s architect said that over the last 25 years the church has deteriorated to the point it is “not salvageable” and that excavation on a neighboring property damaged the foundation. The owner, the Price Group, has it listed for sale for $625,000, with a conceptual drawing of a six-level apartment building.