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Renovo rowhouse residents’ appeal of condemnation proceedings denied

KEVIN RAUCH/THE EXPRESS Renovo Board of Appeals Solicitor Paul Welsh, left, speaks to Renovo Board of Appeals members Larry Glenn, Paul Fletcher and Charles Grieb during the hearing. At right is Property Ordinance Officer Victor Marquartd. In back are Renovo Mayor Tom Tarantella, left, and Renovo councilman Dave Knauff.

By KEVIN RAUCH

For The Express

RENOVO — After three witnesses testified for six hours over two evenings, a three-member board of appeals was unanimous in denying the appeal of residents and property owners of the 14th Street rowhouses, which were deemed unsafe and condemned.

Upon hearing the decision of the board of appeals Thursday evening, several property owners said they would challenge the decision to the courts.

It was Renovo Property Ordinance Officer and Building Code Enforcement Officer Victor Marquardt who inspected the row houses in September and declared them dangerous, saying the threat is so severe that for the safety of all involved, the residents must vacate the premises within 20 days.

KEVIN RAUCH/THE EXPRESS This photo, taken earlier this year, shows the condemned rowhouses in question, in Renovo.

Marquardt subsequently posted eviction notices on all 16 units. Residents appealed the condemnation to Clinton County Judge Michael Salisbury who sent it back to borough council citing the need for the borough to appoint a board of appeals.

The three-member board of Charles Grieb, Larry Glenn and Eric Fletcher was created shortly thereafter to hear from both sides and make a determination. Renovo Borough hired structural engineer Jeff Brooks while residents and property owners of the rowhouses hired attorney Rocco Rosamilia to represent their plight.

Armed with search warrants, Marquardt and Brooks inspected the rowhouses in November. Of the 16 units, four are currently occupied while six are in a repository sale state. Others have severe water and fire damage.

Residents and property owners represented by Rosamilia are Dawn Pagnotto, Michael and Brenda Hand, Ryan Mooney, Janean Mace, Marlin Horst, Teresa Casper, Heather Wadsworth, and Nancy Moriarity.

The meeting began Wednesday evening with Renovo solicitor Stuart Hall calling Marquartd to testify.

Hall reviewed with Marquardt his professional career in which the ordinance officer relayed that he started working for Code Inspections Inc. in 2016 and has worked as an ordinance officer for 22 municipalities.

On cross examination, Rosamilia peppered his experience, having Marquartd explain that one of his certifications came following a four hour training prior to a test.

The bulk of Rosamilia’s rebuttal centered on the 2015 international Property Maintenance Code regarding imminent danger. He said under the temporary safety section that “code officials SHALL order the necessary work to be done.” He continued that the section states “the work should be done as expeditiously as possible.”

Rosamilia repeated that none of this had been done by Marquartd and that it shouldn’t fall on to the neighbors of the vacant units to provide safety and upkeep.

The worst two units according to testimony center around 155 14th St. which has already been deemed to be in “imminent danger” by Marquardt and agreed upon by Brooks. This unit suffered fire and water damage last summer and was described in a state of major deterioration.

Brooks explained that the rowhouse building was constructed as one structure, a three-story, 37 feet wide by 224 feet long building, and not 16 free standing units. The engineer said that fire walls between the units are supported by vertical joists that support the entire unit. Brooks testified that due to 155 14th having internally collapsed, the entire fire wall is now unstable.

The engineer said that a “progressive collapse” has now begun because the joists no longer have a pinning action. “Because of the loss of the structural integrity it could or will have a catastrophic effect,” Brooks said.

In response, Rosamilia repeatedly claimed that Marquartd did not do everything that he should have done, such as not allowing people on the sidewalks of 14th Street after the imminent danger signs were put up. Brooks agreed that more should have been done.

Brooks said that he felt as soon as 155 14th’s condition was discovered that the courts should have been petitioned to get the occupants out of the rowhomes immediately. Parts of St. Claire Avenue and Huron Avenue (Route 120) could also be in danger if nothing is done soon, he said.

Rosamilia asked why the engineer did not inspect either of the two end units, both of which are occupied. Brooks relayed that although they did have warrants to get into 133 14th, that a family member was causing a disturbance and the Renovo police were not on scene to assist, so they did not want to inflame the situation. Brooks said he had seen enough in the other units to come to his conclusion.

Rosamilia contested that Brooks and Marquardt entered seven of the 16 units, less than half. The attorney also debated Brooks’ inspection of the basements, showing pictures of one of the units that the two did not enter. He offered several times that even in 155’s state, a bowed wall could not be confirmed visually.

Brooks countered that you simply cannot be certain of what the inner most wall actually looks like in part to not being able to walk on fallen floors or get through the debris. Brooks agreed with Rosamilia that standing out front from 14th Street the exterior walls are in good visual shape.

Rosamilia offered numerous options, including putting joists back in place, not other construction, which he called minimal enough to provide safety back to the building.

This is where FEMA regulations repeatedly got tossed back and forth.

Since the building sits in a flood fringe area, if repairs needed total more than 50% of the value of the home, all FEMA regulations must be followed. These would include filling in a basement and raising the building — something that nobody on either side of the issue seemed to think was possible. Brooks pointed out that the housing units across the street were built under these regulations and the first floors are well above the ground, with carports underneath.

Brooks suggested that even a generous estimate of $25,760 as the value of a unit, would put such repairs well over the 50% ($12,830) threshold to not require FEMA compliance.

Appeals board member Larry Glenn said fixing 155 14th Street’s problem would at best be a band aid, as other units are already on their way toward similar fates.

In fact, Brooks explained that 155’s damage likely started as a leaky roof that began the downward spiral and other units are already on that path as well.

Thursday evening it was the appellants’ turn as Rosamilia called Matt McDonald to the stand. Just as Rosamilia had done the night before, Hall continually questioned McDonald’s expertise in the area due to lack of actual scholastic education. McDonald repeatedly offered extensive work experience and in fact the board allowed McDonald to testify for an hour and a half.

McDonald produced pictures that he said contradicted parts of Brooks’ testimony. McDonald said the fire wall between all of the units was a two-brick divider, not three as Brooks’ pictures claimed to show. McDonald also offered that the joists were not off-set but actually butted against each other, contradicting Brooks’ report.

McDonald, who was chosen as the spokesperson for the 14th Street residents and property owners, also blamed the entire situation on council’s vendetta against 163 14th St. resident Janean Mace. He added that the letters of condemnation left a false sense of hope, not giving any options, including the availability of going to the board of appeals as the code suggests.

In his closing Rosamilia said that there were too many unknowns to remove people from their homes, pointing to the inspection of only seven of 16 units. He maintained that the borough should have taken steps to make the empty units safe, not the neighbors. He repeated that the language of the 2015 International Property Maintenance Code said the code officials “SHALL” make the properties safe or at minimum that the correspondence received by those affected should have been more detailed in what needed done to make the row safe again. Rosamilia noted that no compensation was offered to these residents.

Hall closed his case by citing a 2006 case in which the city of York appealed a similar ruling. In that case according to Hall and Board of Appeals Solicitor Paul Welsh, “shall” was used in a “directory” term, not in a “mandatory” sense.

The solicitor further offered that no repairs in any manner have begun since this all began in September of 2019 nor have those with an interest in 14th Street attempted to hire an engineer to help their plight.

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