For many at the Shore, demolition is the answer

A lot at 213 N. Lancaster Ave. in Margate, where an old garden gate remained after the house was torn down.
A lot at 213 N. Lancaster Ave. in Margate, where an old garden gate remained after the house was torn down. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 08, 2013

MARGATE, N.J. - For one family, it was three generations of Shore home that had to come tumbling down after Sandy. For another, it was their first house, the children's handprints newly pressed into concrete.

But their different situations led to the same place on the obstacle-laden post-Sandy road: demolition.

"It's a goner," said preschool teacher Janet Shepler, 44, whose home at Wellington and Dudley Avenues now has only a backyard slide, a patio, and a low brick wall that once had heralded the brand-new neighborhood of Ventnor Heights.

"When they got down to the footings, there was still water," said Shepler, a mother of two. "Any insulation left was molded and black. The floorboards, joists, were all rotted. They said the best thing you could do was tear this down."

Demolitions are way up at the Shore, where teardowns are always popular and, in better times, a barometer of the region's economic health. But in 2013, the numbers were a stark indicator of Hurricane Sandy's lingering stranglehold.

The top 20 towns in New Jersey combined for 1,030 demolitions between January and April 2013, compared with 332 in 2012, according to Department of Community Affairs data.

Seventeen of those top 20 were hard-hit Shore towns, including Union Beach (148), Toms River (220), Long Beach Township (60), Little Egg Harbor (92), Ocean City (82), and Margate (25).

Some second-home owners at the Shore are only now showing up to confront mold and mushrooms that have been growing in their houses since November, according to builders and town construction officials. Demolition has become the only way out.

"Sandy comes in and Sandy leaves," said Bernard Styer of American Demolition Co., which has done about 100 demolitions of Sandy-damaged houses at the Shore.

"You dry out your home. Then you're faced with the question of, do you put the money into an old home to save it? Once mold sets in, it's three times the cost."

Towns like Ocean City and Margate have waived seasonal bans on demolition to allow rebuilding.

Dumpsters and excavators and newly empty lots are a common site, usually near other Sandy-flooded houses newly jacked up on cinderblocks to meet new elevation requirements.

For those fastened tight to an island, living in sturdy old houses that defined their identity and seemed to assure a solid future, the process is rough.

"We've always been on top," said a woman whose home was demolished. She did not want to be named. "Now we're at the mercy. We don't even know if we can rebuild."

Indeed, demolition does not always solve the problem. Permitting in towns is backed up, and new houses cannot always be built on the old footprint, because of newer lot-coverage regulations. Insurance payments fall short. Federal money is slow in being allocated. How do you know what you can afford?

Some people run out of time.

"I get calls all the time," said Ventnor-based builder John Irons. "People who moved down here, retired in Ventnor Heights, bought in 2005, -6, -7, -8. If it was worth $300,000 then, now it's worth $200,000. Now it's damaged. Now the ground's only worth $75,000 or $80,000.

"They're just walking, letting the banks take them."

MaryJane McGowan, a construction official in Long Beach Township, said the town has issued 52 demolition permits as of the end of June, compared with 30 in 2012.

"We have had a few people just walk in, just coming down for the first time," she said.

Maurice Corkery's flooded summer home at Third Street and Haven Avenue in Ocean City was demolished May 3. Corkery applied for a zoning permit the same day, and it was approved May 23. But the building permit has yet to be awarded. The modular house has been ready since June 14.

"These people have no heart," Corkery said late last month. "We lost the whole summer. I did everything to try and move it along."

Last week, though, his builder heard from the city, and Corkery, who spent months fighting his insurance company, is hoping things will at last come together.

"Nothing has been easy with this project," he said. "If nothing else, I have learned how to wait."

American Demolition had the task of tearing down a 90-year-old house on Lancaster Avenue in Margate, leaving only the old wooden garden gate at the edge of the property and the swimming pool.

The house had been in the Patterson family for three generations, with additions through the years in both family and house.

Rich Patterson, a member of the Margate Planning Board, had to recuse himself as the board voted in March on various requests to move forward on a new house on the land that has anchored the family in the middle of Margate. The board offered him an extension.

"I don't have a home," he replied, according to an audio file of the meeting on the Margate website. "I'm trying to get back in as soon as I can."

Members of the board were quietly empathetic. "I can't wait for it to happen for you, Rich," said Craig Palmisano, "the faster the better."

With an older house and new elevation requirements, says builder Scott Halliday of Halliday Leonard Builders, demolition makes more sense:

"When you weigh the expense of lifting the house and winding up with an old house on a new foundation vs. a new house, with higher level of equity at the end of the term, it's more practical."

Some are careful to demolish only so much.

On Evergreen Avenue in Longport, the summer home of Burger King executive Michael Diseveria of Delaware was pretty much totaled by Sandy. But he is demolishing only a portion of it.

A demolition of more than 40 percent would result in a new home, where new lot coverage regulations would have made it 800 square feet smaller than the old one and produced a dramatic drop in the value.

One homeowner in Little Egg Harbor had his plans for a new house turned down by the township. He spent about $80,000 in engineering, surveying, architects.

"I hired a new guy, a good ol' boy from the neighborhood, maybe he can get them to see reason," said the homeowner, who did not wish to be named so as not to antagonize town officials.

Irons demolished a house for a client in Ventnor Heights, but after architectural drawings were purchased, the insurance payout fell way short. Now the property is for sale, blueprints included, Irons said.

For Shepler, whose rancher along Wellington Avenue took four feet of water from the bay, demolition was the clear answer.

She and husband Robert Way, 45, have a 4-year-old daughter, Lily, with a neurological condition - tuberous sclerosis - that causes seizures. They worried that Lily would be especially susceptible to the impact from lingering mold, something others who rebuilt quickly may be underestimating.

"The idea of anything in the house - she already has enough problems without something growing in the house," said Way.

Their plan is to place a new two-story modular home on pilings, with the help of JDL Construction. Daughter Lambert, 16, will have a room in the same spot as her old one, only now up in the trees.

The house, on a well-traveled road leading into Ventnor, came down in little more than a day in June. "We drove by a couple of times, and it was like, "That man's in our living room with a big crane!' " Lambert said.

The family has adapted well, granted the use of a ground-floor apartment on a beach block, courtesy of Lynn and Tom Daniels of Malvern, whom they met through friends.

Their dog, Jasper, is staying with the family that took them in during the storm, when the first high tide left them hiking through thigh-high water.

But they are a flexible family and strong. They have taken on challenges before; Lily was adopted with her needs known to them. Despite losing so much, including old photos and a trunk full of Lambert's artwork, they remain an easygoing bunch.

Says Robert Way, "It's just an awful process. In the end, I think it'll all be good. Right now, it's just tough getting through it all."


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com. Follow on twitter @amysrosenberg.

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