City OKs eminent domain use for Nelson House: Today's Sunbeam, Salem NJ, 7/18/07

By Robert Linnehan

[The Salem NJ] City council has unanimously approved the use of eminent domain to obtain ownership of the fire-damaged Nelson House on East Broadway in the heart of the Salem business district.

The action was announced after an executive session of council Monday night.

Council's action sets forth the proper procedures for the transfer of ownership of the Nelson House to the City of Salem and will likely take several months to complete, said Mayor Earl Gage.

The decision to use eminent domain was due to what the city says is the unwillingness of Len Straub, the owner of the Nelson House, to properly secure the building despite having ownership for the past year, Gage said. Straub purchased the building last year in early August 2006. It was later that month that a major fire hit the building.

"It's not closed off for the weather. This building burned a year ago and it still does not have a roof. We've sent Mr. Straub numerous letters about our intentions," Gage said.

"If it's not closed off to the weather it will fall down. We don't want another building sitting in the middle of our downtown like the Fenwick Building. We don't want to make plans to start propping the Nelson Building up two years from now when it starts to collapse."

In addition to the roof, numerous windows in the building still remain broken and wide open.

The Nelson House was the apparent target of an arsonist on Aug. 19, 2006, when 110 firefighters from four different counties were dispatched to fight a blaze that tore through the building for about four hours.

An investigation by New Jersey Arson Units confirmed the fire was an arson.

A number of developers have approached Straub asking to buy the property and have offered fair market prices, but Straub was unwilling to sell, Gage said. The city council also ordered an appraisal of the building and offered to purchase the building from Straub, but the owner stated a counter offer that Gage described as "completely out of line."

Straub could not be reached for comment on the city's claims.

The case will be brought to court and heard by a judge. If the judge rules in favor of the city, a fair market price will be determined by the court and the City of Salem will put funds into a trust for the owner.

If the building is transferred over to the city, Gage said a new roof will immediately be put on to protect the structure. It would then be determined if the Nelson House would be sold to a developer by the city.

"The eminent domain process is not set in stone. If Straub wants to sell us the building he could do so at any time," Gage said. "We've never had to use this process before. It's not our way of going about things, but reluctantly we had to do what's best for the revitalization efforts of our city."

Today's Sunbeam, Salem NJ: http://www.nj.com/news/sunbeam