By Ron Leir
A property dispute between a longtime Harrison business and some neighbors that has been simmering for a few years now appears to be coming to a boil.
Smack in the middle of the controversy are Bergen St. homeowners Victor and Eleanor Villalta and Harrison Equipment Co., which rents and sells air compressors, welders, generators and pumps from its Essex St. facility, across from the backyards of several residents.
Villalta, a councilman who represents the Second Ward, said that the trouble began a few years ago when a concrete retaining wall put up many years ago by the company bordering five residents’ yards began to “tilt.”
That concerned the Villaltas – as it did their neighbors – because of the possibility that the wall could topple over and cause damage so the couple asked the municipal construction office to check out the wall’s condition.
That, in turn, led to Construction Official Rocco Russomanno issuing a “notice of unsafe structure” to the company on June 26, 2012, noting that the “retaining wall at Essex St. parking lot has developed vertical cracks and has begun to overturn due to lateral loading. [The] wall must be repaired or reconstructed.”
The notice directed the company to “demolish [the wall] … or correct the … unsafe conditions by no later than July 24, 2012.” Failure to do so, the notice said, can result in “assessment of penalties up to $2,000 per week per violation.”
In a July 6, 2012, letter, Harrison Equipment President Robert Koones asked Russomanno “for an additional 90 days” beyond the July 24 deadline “to have the property surveyed, discuss the options to correct the issue with a qualified engineer, discuss all legal matters with our attorney, and finally to obtain permits and perform all necessary work to correct the problem.”
Koones then asked Russomanno’s office to “advise [neighbors] of the potential impact on their properties of the retaining wall correction ….”
In a Sept. 19 letter, Koones’ attorney told the Villaltas that his client was awaiting an engineering report on how to proceed with the corrective work and that because part of the company’s property “extends beyond the retaining wall and abuts your property … it will be necessary for the individuals doing the necessary work to access [that part of the property]. It is not expected that this should materially impact your property.”
Nothing happened, Villalta said, until “three days before Christmas in 2013,” when a work crew showed up and took down the wall. But nothing was put in its place, he said.
In the meantime, he said, signs of erosion in residents’ yards were evident: cracks developed in the couple’s backyard concrete patio and separation began to occur in their cinderblock wall bordering their neighbor’s property to the east.
Two yards down, a shed perched on the rear edge of the property line started slipping over.
Sometime in early spring, Villalta recalled, the company sent another work crew to install a “safety” orange plastic fence along the edge of the property which, Villalta said, offered little security, especially with “a lot of kids who use our yard.”
A bit later, as reinforcement, the company also put up a chain link fence which Villalta said was “stretched out,” without metal poles to anchor the fence end to end.
Recently, Villalta said, Harrison Equipment auctioned off much of its inventory and is seeking a buyer for its property so he’s wondering “who’s going to take responsibililty” for the wall. Last week, Koones said that Custom Bandag, a local tire and truck repair shop, “is buying the property and he’s taking over responsibility for the wall after he gets environmental approvals from the state” for a cleanup of the site.
As Bergen St. residents wait, Eleanor Villalta lamented the loss of several rose bushes and decorative brick latticework from the back of the yard that had to go when the wall was removed.
And, about a month ago, neighbor Susan Meneses of 515 Bergen said she was told by the company that she had to take down her backyard shed, because “they were going to be starting to work on [restoring] the wall,” forcing her to place storage items on her newly sodded lawn.