RARITAN TWP., NJ – Properties that are vacant, abandoned or in disrepair are being increasingly scrutinized by officials here as residents complain their neighborhoods are blighted by eyesores.
At Tuesday’s Township Committee meeting, a handful of McPherson Road residents challenged the group to do something about the abandoned house on their street.
Resident Paul Price told Township Committee that while township zoning officer Michael Pessolano is doing a “great job,” a township ordinance adopted last year that was intended to target decaying properties isn’t effective.
That’s important to know, answered Mayor Karen Gilbert. “This is a learning process for us,” she said.
Part of the problem is that ownership of the houses is sometimes uncertain. Township attorney Jeffrey Lehrer said liens on such properties “can flip on a daily basis,” making it difficult for officials to invoke township ordinance and order maintenance, such as lawn cutting.
Price, who said he works every day for a bank in New York, acknowledged that banks can be “dysfunctional” and are “corporate citizens that sometimes don’t care.” But responsibility for the problems stills rests with local officials, he said.
Price and his McPherson Road neighbors said one home on their street has been vacant for three years. They said mice, rats, ticks and bats are a problem on the property. A tree leaning against the house “has stuff growing into the attic,” Price said. “It’s a mess.”
“It’s pretty sad” to see such decay in a neighborhood of half-million dollar homes, said fellow resident Anikka Nelson, who added that she works for a local Realtor. “It’s unbelievable that nothing’s being done about it.”
Nelson said allowing disrepair will only lead to more problems. One such house can reduce the value of nearby houses by $100,000 to $150,000, she said, which would result in a lower property tax assessment and lower revenue for the municipality.
Price said there are 23 homes in his development known as Country Classics, which is off Route 523 near Lenape Park, and Nelson said the problem house had windows open all winter long.
Nelson described the community as close and “very desirable ... this is a slap in the face” to others who live there and care for their properties, she said.
Chris Flood also lives on the street. The father of four said he’s concerned about the safety of kids who wait at the bus stop on Route 523 near the house. Ticks, snakes and rats are common there, he said.
“What can be done to clean this up?” he asked. “What can we do to make sure our kids are safe?”
Joe D’Allessandro also raised health concerns. Grass on the problem property is four feet high, he said, and he sought unsuccessfully to have the school district move the bus stop from Route 523.
“Every kid has a tick on them about every other day, and get Lyme” disease, he said.
Zoning officer Pessolano has only been on the job since the start of the year. He said he has a list of 160 homes on his “watch list.” They are either in disrepair or at risk of becoming a “problem property.”
Pessolano works to contact property owners, get repairs and maintenance done and – when necessary – issues a summons that requires a court appearance. He’s handed out about a half-dozen summonses so far, he said.
Pessolano said it can take 11 weeks or more to contact a company that a bank has hired to perform maintenance on a property it owns. The frequent trading of the loan portfolios creates a “vexing issue” and management companies often won’t identify the bank that pays them, he said.
Lehrer said his office could help with that and perform a quick title search to obtain that information. The cost of the search would be borne by the property owner, Lehrer said, and he said his office has contact information for nearly every lender and loan servicer that operates in the state.
Lehrer added that under state law, a lender can be considered the owner of a property. That means that if it doesn’t respond to a court summons, a warrant could be issued for the arrest of the bank employee responsible.
Pessolano said that some occupied properties suffer from similar problems. He wants a township ordinance to target them, too.
“The grass grows just as fast on these properties” as one that’s a zombie, he said. “It can be an eyesore.” Neighbors can be equally “distressed” by such homes, he said, adding, “That’s just grossly unfair ... whether vacant or occupied, the issue is the same. It’s a blight on the neighborhood.”
Committeeman Lou Reiner said he wants only foreclosed or abandoned properties targeted. “I don’t want government coming to my house, (interrupting) my Fourth of July picnic” to perform a property inspection, he said.
Lehrer said lenders should be pressed and are more likely to respond “especially when fines and arrests are possible.”
The mayor told residents their voice counts. “It’s not something we’re going to put on the back burner,” Gilbert promised.
“I get the feeling, even though you mean well, that we’ll be back here in another year” with the same complaints, D’Alessandro answered. “What if it was your house?” he asked. “What if it was your neighborhood?”