By Ron Leir
Ed and Julie Kelley are at their wit’s end. They live next door to 47 Morgan Place, an empty house with a garage and outdoor pool, all in questionable condition.
Since the disabled owner moved out in fall 2010, the property has turned into an “eyesore,” Ed Kelley said.
The bank that has the mortgage has kept up the real estate taxes and has retained a caretaker, but issues keep cropping up, prompting the town’s Public Works Department to come in and assess the situation and, if it’s deemed dire enough, to call in a property management contractor for repairs and bill the owner for the work.
At some point after the owner of 47 Morgan Place departed the premises, water was discovered running from a broken pipe in the basement of the house, leaving mold spores on the walls in its wake, Kelley said.
Police and fire personnel were called in and all utility connections were checked to make sure they were shut off, said town Public Works Director Gerry Kerr.
“Because of recent high winds, the garage, like the basement [of the house], is now very accessible,” Kelley advised town officials in a Jan. 12 e-mail. Since then, Public Works arranged through its contracted property management firm to restore the plywood covering the opening.
But, inside the garage, there is “an abandoned refrigerator,” Kelley said. Hopefully, he added, no small kids will try exploring and climb inside.
Then there’s the outdoor pool in his neighbor’s yard. For a couple of years, Kelley said, it was covered by a skeletal wood frame supporting a tarpaulin, all surrounded by chicken wire. Over time, though, the tarp disintegrated and “over the past two summers, there have been leaks,” he said.
As of last week, Kelley said, the town’s contractor had begun to fill the pool with dirt and, according to Kerr, it will also be depositing stone to contain any excess water.
Meanwhile, there’ve been problems at the house, too. Last spring, Assistant Construction Official Anthony Chisari recalled, the town got complaints about untended overgrowth in the yard and a collapsing front porch, to which the management firm responded by cutting the grass and propping up the porch.
And, in July 2012, the owner was hit with a court summons for violations of the town’s property maintenance code which can be punishable by fines of up to $1,000. The complaint is still pending, Chisari said.
Ultimately, the management firm ended up taking down the porch structure as unsafe last September.
Still, there are other worries.
The fact that Kelley can “open the house’s cellar door” poses concern that squatters and/or animals can get inside. And there’s the matter of a “listing” 3-foot masonry retaining wall that runs along the northern border of his property. “If it falls down – which, some day, it undoubtedly will – who’s going to pay to fix that?” he wondered.
The Kelleys, who recently switched from renters to owners of their property, are not alone in their frustration. Many other residents around Kearny are facing similar scenarios.
Chisari estimated there are probably as many as “several dozen” properties, including some commercial, many of them abandoned, plagued by property maintenance issues. Among those is a vacant one-family house at 61 Dukes St. damaged in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy when a large tree fell onto the roof, causing gaps where raccoons have been reported going in and out, he said.
According to figures supplied by DPW’s Kerr, Kearny spent about $36,000 in 2013 for repairs on 49 properties scattered around town. About a third of that total, Kerr noted, went for a cleanup of massive amounts of debris and furniture covering the grounds of an occupied residence at 144 Kearny Ave.
So far, the town has incurred about $4,100 in fix-up costs for 47 Morgan Place, “mostly for repairs in 2013,” and the Tax Department has placed liens on the property for that amount, said CFO Shuaib Firozvi.
Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle recalled neighbors complaining about “a dangerous condition” at a Linden Ave. property where “squirrels were going in and out of the eaves of a garage and the structure was ready to blow over.” After the town issued a violation notice and imposed a fine, the owners “took care of it,” she said, but it took “three or four months” for that to happen.
Raccoons were making themselves at home at an abandoned house on Oakwood Ave., off Belgrove Drive, Doyle said. “That property has been a mess for three years,” she said. “We can put plywood on the windows but I don’t know how much else we can do, short of arresting the [owners] and I don’t think we want to do that, particularly if they are elderly.”
“In some cases,” Doyle said, “if the owners have passed on, there may be complications with the estate in control of the property.” The other issue, she said, is if a bank has foreclosed on a property and has assumed payment of taxes, “lots of times, institutions don’t follow up on making repairs” because they’ve already taken a loss on the property.
Given the legal restrictions, Doyle said, “Kearny has done everything we can to try to protect the neighbors and to be fair to everyone.”
While the numbers of neglected structures to which the town has tended in recent years has grown, Mayor Alberto Santos said he saw “one positive sign” in abandoned properties “slowly going back to private hands,” as in the case of a previously boardedup property on Grove St. being restored for rental and a new home being built on Maple St. behind the firehouse.
“Interest is there,” Santos