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Demolition ordered for collapsing Middle Township train station

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — At the end of West Main Street behind a veil of spindly pines in a community once known as Wildwood Junction, a piece of local history slowly dissolves.

Sections of the roof of an old train station have caved in. The building has been vacant for years, if not decades.

“I would like to see it torn down,” said Bill Markee, who lives across the street from the station. “I would like to see it gone. And that would eliminate all of the problems.”

He seems likely to get his wish.

Construction officer Salvatore DeSimone this week issued an order condemning the building as unsafe.

If the unsafe conditions are not corrected, the order reads, the building must be demolished by Feb. 21. Otherwise the owner could face fines of as much as $2,000 a week.

Markee, a retired Cape May County sheriff’s officer who works summers at a Wildwood hotel, brought his concerns about the building to a recent Township Committee meeting.

He said squatters sometimes live in the building, and alleges drugs were sold from it at one point.

It has been boarded up more than once, but it does not take long for people to knock holes in the boards and get back in, he said.

Code enforcement officers visited the site, township administrator Kim Krauss said. Officials reached out to the building’s owner, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, to try to get any issues addressed.

“We want to give them the opportunity to comply and clean up the building,” she said before DeSimone’s condemnation was issued.

An NJ Transit official indicated this week that the building is not their responsibility.

“New Jersey Transit does own the station, but it is leased and maintained by Cape May Seashore,” said Kate Thompson, a public information officer with NJ Transit.

Cape May Seashore Lines operates tourist rail lines. The railroad ran from Rio Grande to Cape May for years, until damage to the track and the bridge over the Cape May Canal ended that excursion route. More recently it has run from Richland to Tuckahoe, with a Valentine’s Express ride between those stations advertised on the rail line’s website.

Attempts to contact Cape May Seashore Lines and Tony Macrie, the rail line’s founder and general manager, were unsuccessful. There was no response to emailed requests for comment, and the listed number for the rail line went instead to an automated telephone survey.

Krauss confirmed that Cape May Seashore Lines holds the lease on the property. She said she has spoken to Macrie, who plans to explore options for securing the building. But even if the organization leased the property, Krauss said, the owners would ultimately be responsible for the structure.

Thompson said she could not discuss details of the lease, including how much is being paid for the use of the building.

Township officials have pushed to address vacant and abandoned buildings. Township Committee devoted a November workshop meeting to the issue. Officials heard that more than 90 buildings are vacant in the township, with issues in every community, and about 210 properties in foreclosure. At that meeting, police Chief Christopher Leusner described the issue as a matter of public safety. In Middle Township, the code enforcement office falls under the Police Department.

On a cold afternoon, no one was in the old train station, but there were signs of occasional habitation. Empty beer and vodka bottles lay in the woods around the site and a moldering collection of clothes was strewn outside. Empty food boxes and more clothes could be seen inside.

Plywood boards covered the windows and doors, but on the side facing the track, a jagged hole in the wood allowed plenty of room for someone to enter. A smaller hole on the other side was used to pass drugs out of the building, according to Markee.

From Markee’s fenced lawn, it would be easy to miss the old station, shrouded behind the trees. A white Neighborhood Watch sign stands nearby. Years ago, Markee said, there was a flag pole and a monument on an island between his street and a narrow pull-off where he said people once caught the train. The pole and the old cannon are long gone, with trees growing where they stood.

Just past the stand of trees surrounding the old station are the out-of-use train tracks. The Cape May Seashore Lines ran Halloween and Christmas trains on the track, Markee said. Before that, the train ran from Camden to Cape May, with a spur line running from the station across the marsh to Wildwood.

At one time, it was a busy rail line, bringing tourists to seashore towns throughout Cape May County. None of those interviewed were sure how old the building is, but similar railroad buildings that have been preserved in Tuckahoe, Ocean City and Cold Spring were built in the 1890s. Thompson at the DOT said it is at least 75 years old and has not operated as a station in more than 30 years.

Passenger rail service to Wildwood ended in the 1950s, with the last cargo train running in 1974, according to a posted history of Wildwood.

Markee does not believe the building could be saved at this point. Maybe 10 years ago it could have been renovated, he said, but he believes it is too far gone, and that it will be difficult to get action from NJ Transit.

“Nobody’s going to do anything because it’s the state,” he said. “If this were on my property, they’d have been all over me years ago.”

This story has been modified with comments from NJ Transit. {/span}

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