Montclair couple drops suit on razing denial
The couple suing the township to reverse a Zoning Board and Historic Preservation Commission denial for a total demolition permit for their home at 109 Union St. have dropped their case.
Now they are in discussions with the Planning Department on a “partial demolition,” according to planning officials.
The couple, Steven and Leah Meranus, had filed a complaint in Essex County Superior Court in February asking the court to reverse the permit denial and direct Richard Charreun, officer under the demolition ordinance, to approve the total demolition application. It also asked for payment of attorney fees.
The case was dismissed “voluntarily” by the couple, township and Preservation Commission attorney Paul Burr said at a July 14 commission meeting.
The Meranuses, 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 uninhabitable after renovations to fix a bathroom leak led to asbestos being spread throughout the home.
The Preservation Commission denied their 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.
The Meranuses’ 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.
An email sent July 7 from Montclair Local to Steven Meranus asking why they dropped the case and what their future plans for the home are has not been returned.
However, Burr said that the Meranuses had been in contact with the township planner to discuss “a less than 50% demolition” of the home.
Township Planner Janice Talley said an architect contacted the planning office on behalf of the Meranuses.
“The discussion concerned what is not considered total demolition,” Talley said.
According to the demolition ordinance, total demolition is defined as “the razing, dismantling or destruction of substantially all of any building or of any publicly visible facade wall.” "Substantially all" of a building means at least 50% of the exterior walls, Talley said.
The couple began renovations to the home in 2018, including work on plumbing, installation of HVAC units and ductwork, bathroom upgrades and basement sheetrock. In the course of the renovations, 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 in 2021.
Some of the plaster walls, which contained asbestos, were removed by the contractor. Fans were set up to dry out the walls, but in doing so spread asbestos fibers throughout the home, she said. The family was advised to vacate the home in October 2018 after environmental testing by Scott Higgins of ABS Environmental Service.
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 also issued a violation to the Meranuses’ contractor as a result of its findings, according to the Feb. 25 suit.
Further damage to the home occurred in January 2019, while the home was vacant, when piping in the master bathroom on the second floor burst, causing flooding in the bathroom, the first floor and the basement and continuing for days until it was discovered.
The couple’s insurance company paid $700,000 for asbestos containment and abatement to remove the contaminated walls and floors, Leah Meranus said. But the home still tested high for levels of asbestos.
The township has declared the home an “unsafe structure.”
The family has paid its $38,700 annual taxes, Leah Meranus said.
The couple’s attorney, Rich McMahon, maintained during the Preservation 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 full remediation would be cost-prohibitive.
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, which has since dropped them, according to the couple.
The second hearing with the commission resulted in a 3-3 vote, with Chairperson Kathleen Bennett and members David Greenbaum and Caroline Kane Levy voting against it and Jason Hyndman, Steve Rooney and Michael Graham voting for the demolition. A tie results in a denial.
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.
Effort to sell the property
During the hearings, commission members questioned why the couple had not made a good-faith effort to sell the home, 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.
At the July 14 commission meeting, members discussed amending the demolition ordinance to clarify the requirement of sale offering, as two recent demolition permits were voted through although the owners did not make an effort to sell the properties.
Officers of the American Legion Crawford Crews Post No. 251 building on Bloomfield Avenue were granted a demolition permit in January and said an offer of sale was not an option because the only way to continue its mission was to stay on site. The permit was granted because the property had a historic user and historic use, members agreed.
On July 12, the commission approved the demolition of a home at 95 Maple Ave. That permit was granted because the applicant did not claim that there is no other alternative to total demolition.
“As the statute is worded, the applicant was not required to because they did not claim it was the only recourse for this property,” commission member Graham said.
“In any instance where there is a claim of no other alternative to total demolition, the applicant shall provide written documentation of good-faith attempts to sell the building at a reasonable and comparable amount [to recent sales or appraisals],” according to the ordinance.
“I think we all agree that’s an easy way to skirt that requirement, “ Graham said.
The Meranuses’ suit was dismissed without prejudice, which means the couple has the option to sue again.