The council has opted to give a Sycamore Avenue couple 45 days to prove they are taking steps to reconstruct their home before it will be demolished by the township.
The council took action Thursday after hearing testimony about the condition of the Sycamore Avenue house from zoning official Stephen Rodzinak and attorney for the township Michael Camerino.
“The construction official has the authorization to proceed with the demolition,” Camerino said. “This matter is being presented to emphasize that the health of the residents be taken seriously. The township will do what it needs to do.”
The Sycamore Avenue house, owned by Kethryn and Thomas Czekaj, was deemed hazardous, and the two were served with a court order requiring them to leave in October 2010.
“The structure cannot be occupied,” Camerino said. “The residents were provided with assistance to make sure they had shelter.”
The couple is currently living in Hillsborough.
In April 2011, Camerino said, they resolved a property maintenance issue, with code officials presenting the Czekaj family with an application package to proceed with the remediation of the property.
But nothing happened after that, he said.
“They have not retained a contractor,” he said. “The code official is ready to work for permits and use the funds that have been deposited for that purpose.”
A total of $20,000 has been deposited in an escrow account to use on either remediation or demolition of the property.
“But neighbors have registered complaints because of the unsafe, unhealthy conditions,” Camerino said. “The property owners should be given time to get their things from the property, but they enter the house at their own risk.”
Camerino said these are not cosmetic changes that need to be made to the house, but actual rebuilding.
“One alternative is to put $2,000 per week as a penalty for failure to fix it,” he said. “But we seek to remedy the problem, not just impose fines.”
Rodzinak said the house is completely uninhabitable, with no electricity, no water and no heating system.
“The interior of the house, you can’t even walk through it,” he said. “From everything we’ve discussed and looked at, we only see the option of taking the house down. We don’t see the ability to even reconstruct in its present condition.”
But, Rodzinak said, everything has taken more than a year, and there has not been any application submitted to repair or demolish the house.
Rodzinak said the owners have only cleaned up the exterior of the property, but not the rest of it.
“There are holes in the roof,” he said. “Some of the exterior of the house is rotted, so the electrical service is no longer attached. A tree hit the left side of the house, causing damage.”
“And with the roof being exposed to the elements, the interior ceiling has collapsed, mold, vermin and everything,” he added. “It is everything you can imagine at this point.”
Thomas Czekaj spoke on behalf of himself and his wife, saying that the family has been having issues with debt and health. At one point, he said, he was in debt $40,000, and then had to lay out $50,000 to “keep his family going.”
“Since I vacated the house, I was loaned $20,000, and that’s what’s in that escrow account,” he said.
Czekaj said he is angered by some of the complaints from the neighbors, including those about the property being rat-infested.
“If there’s any rats in the neighborhood, I suggest you look at neighbors’ backyards,” he said. “My yard has been vacant, and the house is locked and boarded up.”
But, Czekaj said, he never refused to do remediation on his property.
“This is a matter of finances,” he said. “I cleaned that property, it was $1,600 for removal of trees, and I put in a lot of work.”
The money problems, Czekaj said, were followed by family tragedies, including the death of his son in a car accident in February 2010 and another son dealing with melanoma.
“We’ve been paralyzed,” he said. “When you are going through these things, it is very difficult to get motivated, but my property is safe.”
For the Czekaj family, they are just hoping to have some more time to put finances in order and begin making repairs on the house. They said they already have a contractor lined up to begin the work.
“We have contracted another person, and he has a better reputation [than a previous contractor],” said Kethryn Czekaj. “He said he would take care of everything.”
But for the members of the council, without actual paperwork and information about the contractor, they had a tough time understanding whether the Czekaj family could pay for this kind of remediation.
“It bothers me because I hate to be in a position where we have to demolish the house,” said councilman Matthew Moench. “And it’s not clear to me whether you have the finances to maintain the house. It sounds like you have had a lot of tragedies and hardships in the past years, and my concern is this has been going on for a long while, and it doesn’t seem like there’s been any movement.”
In order to have the extension, councilman Howard Norgalis said, he would want to know that there is a definite contractor and movement toward getting the required permits from the township.
“I would not be comfortable simply saying we will give you more time because the documentation is compelling,” he said.
Council members expressed concerns over the state of the property right now.
“The testimony and the pictures certainly paint a dismal picture,” said council president Allen Kurdyla. “If something goes on in that house, someone will get hurt. It’s an absolute trap, and it has to be repaired.”
The council agreed that it would provide that 45-day extension to allow the Czekaj family to get finances in order, move forward with a contractor and get permits squared away. Rodzinak said he would expedite the process if the family applies for the permits.
If progress is not made within that 45-day period, the house will be demolished.
“I will not support any further extension,” Moench said. “Given all the evidence we have in front of us, this is more than the issue of someone not cutting the grass. This is really a safety issue to anyone who would be in the house or in the area, and it’s a blight on the neighborhood.”