A decrepit and vacant old American Legion building stands in the middle of West Elm Avenue in Linwood among the neatly landscaped residential homes.
Residents on the block have been working to get the building demolished for about a month now, claiming it’s both a safety hazard and an eyesore, and their efforts seemed to be working, but recently they’ve been stalled after learning the city’s code enforcement officer had purchased a tax lien certificate on the property.
On Aug. 7, about a dozen West Elm Avenue residents decided they were fed up with the building’s condition and sent a letter and a signed petition to Mayor Richard DePamphilis asking for it to be demolished.
The two-story building has stood rotting in its place for more than a decade. Its exterior paint is peeling, several windows are without glass, there’s a gaping hole — larger than a car — through its roof and tree limbs are growing through the cement walls.
At first, neighbors said the process seemed to be moving smoothly and quickly. DePamphilis organized an on-site meeting with the neighbors and Commissioner Timothy Tighe the same week he received the letter and all agreed it had to be torn down. On Aug. 20, a demolition hearing with the building inspector was held.
But an Aug. 27 meeting on the issue was canceled, and soon after, neighbors said they learned Code Enforcement Officer Edward Beck had purchased a tax lien certificate on the property in 2010 for $325 at an 18 percent interest rate.
The mayor confirmed that Beck bought the tax lien, but neither he nor the neighbors found about this until after the on-site meeting, and several neighbors questioned the move.
Beck said because of his position with the city it is “a conflict of interest” for him to speak on the issue, but he requested his attorney, Carl Tripician, speak on his behalf.
Tripician could not be reached for comment Wednesday and Beck, after hearing this, said he still was unable to give a comment.
DePamphilis said he believes the property is currently in the process of foreclosure, though he wasn’t certain.
West Elm Avenue resident John Costello said Beck’s position as code enforcement officer puts him at an unfair advantage in this situation.
“If he does get the foreclosure, he’d be policing himself,” Costello said.
Barbara Gallagher, who lives next to the vacant building with her husband, John, said she was personally angered by this news.
“At $350, I would have bought it myself,” Gallagher said. “How is it he suddenly pays the behind sewer bills and owns this whole property.”
Apparently, a big part of the problem had been that no one really knew who owned the ramshackle building. The American Legion post had been inactive for about 15 years, said the Gallaghers, who have lived next to it since the 1980s.
Mold-covered American Legion memorabilia, including old photographs, plaques and tapered American flags still fill the building. Property tax records show the American Legion Post owned it until at least through 2011.
“It seems like the American Legion Post just walked out one day,” Costello said.
Neighbors said they tried to maintain the property after the post left, mowing the grass and repainting the building, but they couldn’t keep up with it.
“We tried, we all tried,” Gallagher said, “but there’s only so much we could do.”
The main reason they want it knocked down is because they feel it’s become a fire hazard and may attract trespassers.
DePamphilis said although he wasn’t aware Beck purchased the tax lien until after the on-site meeting with the neighbors and Tighe, he doesn’t believe it will cause a delay in demolition.
He plans to hold a meeting on the issue again soon, but he didn’t have a date set as of Wednesday.
DePamphilis also said he doesn’t know why the building had been left unkempt for so long. He hadn’t been inside for years prior to the recent meeting with the neighbors, and based on what he saw, he agrees demolition is necessary.
“It’s pretty well gone,” DePamphilis said. “It’s just reached a point that something had to be done about it.”
He said the city has an existing ordinance that allows council to directly address unsafe structures, and a demolition is still the goal.
He’d personally like to see a brand new home built in its place.
“That’s what belongs there, a house,” DePamphilis said. “It’s a great old street with a lot of character and history.”
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