Pitstop demolition

A construction tractor demolishes the old Pit Stop building at 1175 Lawrence Road.

Municipal manager Kevin Nerwinski’s first post on his blog site (lawrencetownshipnjmanagerkpn.blogspot.com) was about the old Pit Stop property in the Eldridge Park section of town.

The building was demolished last month, and in conjunction he asked The Gazette to run the three blog posts he wrote on the issue. An edited versionof those posts are below.

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First post (April 2019): The pressure to come out strong on my first blog is real. So what sells better than a good zombie movie? Unfortunately, this zombie doesn’t just walk at night and feed on the living. This one actually doesn’t move, and is visible for all to see day or night. And though it doesn’t threaten to eat us as we pass by, it eats away at the soul of our community. Yes, I just wrote that...very dramatic.

The old commercial site at 1175 Lawrence Road known as the “Pit Stop” is the very definition of a “zombie property.” The only problem is that it is not tucked away in the corner of town down some industrial road. Rather, it is located right in the center of our town on our main street. Some will argue that it is not the geographic center of our town, but emotionally it is because of where it is, how it looks and what it represents.

When I was being interviewed by mayor and council for the position of municipal manager, we discussed this site along with several others that needed our attention. I told them that, to me, this one is the most important project to address to improve our community (setting aside the Lawrence Shopping Center because it is privately owned by a company with a clear plan to revitalize it).

The problems with this site are complicated to say the least. It is a site that is owned by a now defunct limited liability company whose principal member is now deceased. Family members are handling the estate, but have no legal obligations to address any of the issues involved in this site. There is no motivation to sell it because it currently has liens against it from the NJDEP for past remediation work and the township for taxes owed close to $2 million. The property, of course, is not worth anything near that amount. Additionally, the site is still contaminated and requires extensive remediation work.

So how can the town get involved? First, it can’t foreclose upon the property and take over ownership because liens by the NJDEP are not extinguished in such a foreclosure action. Leaving the amount of lien claimed, due and owing by the new owner (the town). In addition, if the town would assume ownership, it assumes all responsibility for future environmental remediation costs. I’m thinking the taxpayers would not be pleased with that obligation when we have so many other issues our taxes must address.

To solve this problem, I contacted the deceased owner’s family member and explained that the town is motivated to improve this property. Not surprisingly, he was interested in helping, but deeply concerned that the estate (that has no real value) would incur further liabilities that may transfer to its heirs.

So the deal we struck was that if the Town (1) was able to convince the NJDEP to waive the liens it holds against the property, and the town (2) eliminates the taxes owed, and the NJDEP (3) agrees to fund the complete clean-up of the site under the NJDEP Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund (HDSRF), the estate would (4) deed the site to the Town for $1. His long, languishing problem is gone, and we get a clean property at virtually no cost to us. He agreed in writing to do this.

Our municipal engineer and I then met with representatives of the NJDEP, and began the application process for funding from HDSRF. This required us to hire a site remediation firm to study the history of the site and perform testing on it to determine what the anticipated costs would be for tearing down the building and remediating the contamination. This work was performed, and we submitted our completed application. This process took about a year to do.

In several meetings with the NJDEP representatives, we have received very positive feedback that this is the type of site that they want to fund. Our application was submitted approximately eight months ago, and we have been told that a decision is imminent. If we do receive the funding, the building comes down, the site is cleaned, the town becomes the owner and, pursuant to the requirements of the grant, we must use the site as a passive park area... Let’s all think good, positive thoughts while our application with the NJDEP is being considered!

Update I (July 2020): After 3 years of diligent work involving engineers, NJDEP staff, environmental consultants, grant applications, title searches, research, negotiations... you name it... it happened, we received a check in the amount of $239,524 from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Municipal Grant Program.

This grant money is purposed for us to continue with the environmental assessment of the property which includes the razing of the long vacant building (to study the ground soil underneath it).

I want to publicly thank the governing body (Mayor and Council Members) who pushed for and supported the work that it took to make this happen. I also want to publicly thank our Municipal Engineer James Parvesse and Brenda Kraemer (Engineer and Grant Wizard!) for their focused work to bring us to this point. In addition, the staff at the NJ DEP have been excellent to work with. They agreed with us very early on that this is exactly the type of project that the grant money is designed for...and they helped us greatly to make it happen.

Update II (July 2021): The demolition of the Pit Stop building today was extremely satisfying to watch as a long-time resident of Lawrence Township. For several decades the zombie building sat prominently in our community as a symbol of economic blight frustratingly just beyond our reach to address. But, alas, it is no more. What happens next, you ask?

Once the building debris is removed, the land beneath the building is now accessible to test for contamination. As most of you know, the property was the site of several gas stations, and, unsurprisingly, the soil was contaminated. This property was the subject of extensive environmental remediation work years ago, but due to the complicated ownership issues involved, the work stalled at the footprint of the building.

If the testing reveals contamination in the soil where the building was situated, we will apply for grant money to continue the clean-up. We do not think it is appropriate for the taxpayers of Lawrence Township to fund the clean-up of this private property even though we stand to become the future owner.

This may take more time to accomplish, but it will allow us to save our money for other projects for which funding is not available or less than we need to make it happen. The NJDEP has signaled to us that this project is precisely the type that would qualify for assistance for the betterment of the community. So we push forward.

Once the property is certified “clean,” the title is clear of liens and judgments, and the township becomes the owner; the deal with the NJDEP is that we create a passive community park on the property. As for the plans for the park?... Stay tuned!

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