Fire chief blasts borough tolerance of perilous buildings

22 August, 1990(~estimated)

Fire chief blasts borough tolerance of perilous buildings

By Patti Wieser
Staff Writer

The lingering conditions of some “problem” properties in Princeton Borough anger local Fire Chief Eric Karch, who questioned whether he would allow firefighters inside certain properties if a blaze occurred.

“We don’t give a life to save a life,” Mr. Karch told Princeton Borough Council Tuesday night. The fire chief said there is an unwritten rule among the volunteer fire department: No one goes in until the chief assess. it.”

His comments followed reports from Rent Registration Board members David Goldfarb and Peter Johnson, who discussed 203-205 Nassau St. and 18-20 Pine St., respectively. The Nassau Street property, which includes retail and business on the first floor, boarding rooms on the second and a third-floor apartment, has been cited repeatedly for fire, health and housing code violations. Borough housing inspector Rocky Innocenti said in a memo dated July 17,

“Presently there exists numerous fire violations, tremendous structural defects, dilapidation and general disrepair.”

Mr. Innocenzi recommended evacuation and closing of the second and third floors “as soon as possible.”

“This record Mr. Goldfarb wrote of 203-205 Nassau St. is a sorry record. This building has been discussed over and over and over again,” commented Councilwoman Lucy Mackenzie.

Wednesday, Fire Chief Karch said he is particularly perturbed that borough officials have not forced the property owner, Sanford Zeider, to comply with housing and fire codes. Records indicate that many of the violations have remained unabated for years. In the event of a fire at the 130-year-old Nassau Street building, risk to local firefighters would be grave, Mr. Karch said. “How can the council let this go for four years? … Were all volunteers. You’re talking about the health and welfare of my people.”

Mr. Karch said the borough is getting “more and more urban” and although it has been fortunate not to have many major fires, increasing cases of housing with faulty electricity, overloaded outlets and overcrowding will likely coincide with a higher incidence of fires.

“Nassau Street is like a mini-Manhattan,” the fire chief said, explaining that the town’s main thoroughfare boasts many old buildings with old electrical wiring.

As the as enforcing the codes and prompting landlords to correct the violations, it’s up to borough officials, not firefighters, the fire chief said.

“All’s we do is fight them (the fires),” said Mr. Karch, whose mounting frustration over the situation is “unbelievable.” “You’re talking life safety, not only of us but also of the renters.”

He lambasted borough officials during the council meeting for their apparent lack of quick action.

“You people don’t have to live in them and enter them. We do,” Mr. Karch said.. “I feel the borough is negligent. Something has to be done.”

Mayor Barbara Sigmund responded, “I don’t think anyone’s been negligent. The offices of the borough have been diligent. But it’s extremely hard to resolve. That’s why we have to resort to the court … and to do this, we need airtight cases.”

Borough assistant attorney Brian Mulligan said he preferred not to say much about 203-205 Nassau St. because local officials are putting a case together against the property owner and the issue may go into litigation.

Mr. Zeitler’s attorney, Paul Adezio of Strauss and Hall, said plans have been submitted for the property and have been reviewed.

Mr. Johnson reported on another “problem” property — 18-20 Pine St. Noting that the situation there is not an isolated case, he reviewed the building’s history of health and zoning violations. Recently, the owner of the property, Salvatore LaPlaca, was fined $500 in municipal court for building code violations.

Commenting Wednesday on derelict rental properties in the borough, Mr. Johnson said, “It’s something that’s been breeding in town for a long period of time. The question is, ‘Why does it exist?’ ”

Borough Council, which recently appointed an interim fire official to address substandard rental property, made another move this week toward dealing with the issue. Council unanimously accepted the Workable Relocation Assistance Plait outlined by the Rent Registration Board. The plan would provide housing for renters kilted to vacate substandard housing.

While Mr. Goldfarb pointed out how the town has thus far been fortunate not to have had a catastrophe because of substandard housing, the fire chief agonized over the situation, stressing he would put the welfare of his volunteers first.

Would he send firefighters into 203-205 Nassau if it were aflame? “I’m not going to jeopardize my guys for a hellhole that’s been there four years,” Mr. Karch said.

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