BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.com

The Historic Preservation Commission has received its first request for demolition of a home since the new “knockdown” law was enacted last year.

The 1905 Tudor-revival home set for demolition is at 109 Union Street and was probably designed by A.F. Norris, who was responsible for the houses in the area that were developed on the Russell estate.

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. 

The applicants, Steven and Leah Meranus, who bought the property in 2017 for $1,400,000 and planned to renovate it, now propose demolishing the dwelling due to extensive asbestos contamination. They state that the house cannot be fully and safely abated without demolishing the structure, according to the application expected to be heard Sept. 3 by the HPC.

In March 2018 the couple began renovating the home, which included plumbing work, installation of HVAC units and ductwork, lighting improvements and basement sheetrock. In the course of these renovations, their application says, their contractor committed an egregious error that caused a water leak. 

In attempting to repair the leak, the contractor removed portions of the asbestos-containing plaster ceiling and walls, thereby causing asbestos to be released into the dwelling. This required that the owners undertake an extensive and costly remediation project to remove asbestos contamination throughout the house and for them to move out while the work was being done. 

Since October 2018, the couple and their children have been living in temporary housing at a cost of approximately $8,000 per month in addition to the applicants’ paying $8,000 each month for their mortgage and carrying costs for the Union Street property.

Their insurance company, Chubb, has paid almost $700,000 for asbestos remediation costs with the project nowhere near completion, according to the couple. 

“Recently, in view of the circumstances set forth in the May 27, 2020, letter from ABS Environmental [the applicant’s consultant] and the substantial additional costs to be incurred, Chubb has determined that this project is a ‘total loss’ and it has agreed to pay the balance of the insurance proceeds to the applicants to be applied toward the cost of constructing a new residence on the property,” the demolition application says. 

Furthermore, according to an ABS Environmental report dated May 27, the asbestos contamination is so severe and extensive that the house cannot be fully and safely abated without demolishing the structure. 

“Without further remediation, the home, in my professional opinion, will not satisfy safety requirements for inhabitation,” according to the environmental report. “Further, the Meranus family cannot in good conscience contract or allow workers to rebuild the home in this condition, as there is a strong possibility for recontamination and/or exposure to construction workers. I do not have any level of confidence that the house can be abated without demolition.”

A report by the HPC’s architect, Connolly & Hickey, states that the information provided by the applicant justifying the need for demolition appears incomplete, including notification from the insurance company that the home is a “total loss.” 

“Execution of asbestos removal is a N.J. Department of Environmental Protection-regulated construction activity that should have a clear permitting and testing protocol as part of its removal,” the Connolly & Hickey report says. “The only reports provided relate to the testing for asbestos in the plaster prior to its removal and an assessment after the fact that the work was improperly completed. 

“If no such permits were obtained there needs to be an explanation as to the process of engaging the contactor to remove the contaminated plaster. If permits were obtained, the applicant should substantiate the claims made by ABS Environmental Services by providing copies of the asbestos removal permits, the air quality testing results, and the final sign off from NJDEP and the local code official.” 

The HPC architect also asks about how the loose asbestos is going to be addressed during demolition.

“The demolition of this structure is based on insufficient documentation and could potentially set a bad precedent in this district,” the architect said. “The Montclair Historic Preservation Commission is sympathetic to the owner’s plight; if a dangerous condition exists that cannot be remedied without demolition such a loss to the district may be necessary. 

“However, knowing that asbestos removal is a highly regulated industry, the HPC needs the full chain of the documents of how the property reached its current condition and how the potential demolition will be executed in order to provide a fully educated response to this request for demolition.”   

Montclair officials first issued a moratorium on the razing of one-, two-, three- or four-family homes in February 2019 due to the public outcry following the razing of two homes on Undercliff and Lloyd roads, one of which dated to the Civil War era. 

In May 2019, the council approved a no-knockdown law that gives the HPC review of planning or zoning applications for structures on the historic registry or in a historic-designated area and amends land-use and oversight procedures when a property owner seeks a demolition permit.

In the end, property owners will still be able to perform demolitions, as the ordinance merely buys the township time to delay the inevitable, Township Attorney Ira Karasick said. Although towns such as Morristown, Jersey City and Princeton have demolition ordinances, state land-use laws do not allow a municipality to stop a homeowner from ultimately demolishing a structure, he said.