HOWELL – More than a year after its discussion before the Township Council, Howell’s demolition program is still identifying properties that can be added to the registry of buildings targeted for removal.
At that time, Howell Township Director of Land Use, Matt Howard, provided a narrative history on the program and its operation, which was lauded by the then-council members. Howard’s presentation was so well received that former Councilman John Bonevich proposed tripling the program’s budget on the spot.
The program, which has been in place since 2018, has been beset by a number of fiscal and jurisdictional hurdles that have not only frustrated township officials, but residents as well.
While the lofty allocation proposed by Bonevich was not realized, the township did increase the program’s budget to its current $60,000 and that allowed the town to put three property owners on notice regarding their derelict structures. By the township’s estimation, the projected cost of each demolition would be $20,000, thus effectively using up the allocation for the fiscal year.
But the notices to the property owners paid big dividends, as each of them consented to pay the cost of the demolition themselves, thus saving the taxpayers money and accelerating the process.
“Overall, the program has been a success,” noted Howard, referencing recent removals on the south side of Bergerville Road. The structures, which were located near the Pointe O’ Woods development, had been targeted for demolition by a previous round of orders. “This was another case of missing property owners, but when issued with a formal Order to Demolish we were able to finally make contact with the owners. Through this open line of communication, we were able to compel the owners to demolish these structures without using taxpayer money.”
At the time of the original presentation, Howard had reported how the program continued to operate through the pandemic and had worked to find five prime targets for the township to remove. During the past year, the township removed four of the identified structures at the cost and cooperation of the owners, with just one by the township directly. In 2023, Howell is looking to build on their previous success.
The three targeted properties that will be demolished by the owners are expected to come down within the next several months, according to Howard, which will not only increase civic pride, but save the township considerable cost. In all, the projected costs for just the dilapidated structures along Bergerville Road approached the $200 thousand range, which was a figure that the township was not willing to commit to in one fiscal year.
“This cost is over three times the annual allotment of the Township’s demolition budget,” admitted Howard, “and without any knowledge if or when a lien would be repaid, the township has reservations moving forward on demolishing the properties itself at this time.”
However, if the township can continue to produce results such as they have in the early part of 2023 by having owners foot the bill for the demolition, the program will likely redouble its success.
But local residents near the structures along Bergerville Road have voiced their concerns to township officials citing the potential hazards, as well as the simple visual nuisances the structures represent. Postings on local Howell social media websites have also echoed these sentiments.
Referred to locally as the “Bergerville Bungalows,” the structures present a unique set of problems for the township that has slowed their removal. One major concern is the environmental impact of the removal of the buildings due to the presence of possible hazardous materials contained within them. Located on the north side of Bergerville Road, they are immediately adjacent to the Manasquan River, which feeds directly into the Manasquan Reservoir. Hasty or slipshod removal of these structures could not only cause damage to the surrounding environment, but taint the water supply in the area.
In addition to the environmental and fiscal restraints upon the program, there are other factors that have slowed the progress of the township’s timetable.
Often times, there are problems identifying or locating the owners of the property in order to serve them with notice of the township’s ordinance. Should there be non-compliance by the owners, the matter must then pass through a legal process before the township can give the green light to safely remove the structures. However, township officials have been working to remove these impediments.
“We have also instituted a new vacant [and] abandoned property ordinance that requires registration of vacant properties,” stated Howard. “We noticed over seventy property owners through the initial round of violations and several have registered. A lot of the properties noticed are clearly vacant but they did not rise to the level of needing to be demolished in the sense that they did not meet all of the necessary criteria.”
If an inspection of the structures at a site shows that it is still in sound shape, while unsightly, it will be permitted to stand and does not come under the township’s demolition jurisdiction.
“To our surprise,” commented Howard, “some property owners are electing to demolish some structures as opposed to registering them. It does appear that either through demolition, rehabilitation, or registration that this new ordinance will go a long way towards improving the township by compelling owners to keep their properties in better condition.”
But the township is looking to achieve their ends through the intelligence of the legal system, rather than the brute force of the bulldozer. As part of the implementation of their Master Plan, the township held an abandoned property hearing in November 2022, in which it announced their intentions to move with renewed vigor against such property owners. Citing the fact that the structures were unsafe and open to the elements, they also found them to be in violation due to the fact that they could harbor wildlife or vermin and could be openly accessed by members of the public, thereby creating a hazard.
In addition, Howell has appointed a special counsel to be in charge of such affairs, especially in regard to the structures along Bergerville Road. In doing so, they hope to have property owners move to correct all violations, and if necessary, pursue the matter through the court system to achieve the desired results.