Dear Friends and Neighbors, this is a long post so I offer you the cliff notes and action items in the first two paragraphs. The timeline and details follow below, should you care to dive deeper. The approved renovation to turn the old Strand Theatre back into an art house is facing severe pressure due to litigation filed by one neighbor, and the inaction of the City of Lambertville’s Building Department to enforce known violations sited to that neighbor. I am asking our community to write to our elected officials to urge the Lambertville Building Department to take action now by enforcing the violation written to 16 Coryell for the installation of a fence on the Strand property without a permit.
You can create a meaningful and important impact by emailing a brief statement of support by clicking on each name here and sending it to Mayor Nowick, Councilmen Steve Stegman, Councilwomen Benedetta Lambert, Councilman Evan Lide, and Councilwoman Karen Kominsky If you would prefer to have your thoughts heard in person, I plan to attend the city council meeting on January 19th at 7PM, at the ACME building to express my concerns and ask the City Council for support. If you would like to join me and share your thoughts, that would be great. Please see the city web site for public comment guidelines.
The Shortest ‘Long Version’ I could come up with…:)
The timeline below will give you an overview of the gargantuan effort this undertaking has required. I can provide documentation for every statement made below.
- February 2014: The property at 16 Coryell Street, adjacent to the Strand Theatre, is purchased by the current owners. They do extensive renovations to the property over the course of 2015-2016, that include changing the elevation in the alleyway between the two buildings. The alleyway is four feet wide. Two feet is owned by the Strand Theatre and two feet is owned by 16 Coryell, with an express deeded easement stating that it is forever to be kept open for its entire width, and its entire length for the use of both parties.
- All surveys submitted to the City by 16 Coryell show the property line running down the center of the alleyway. Building plans submitted to the City and the DRCC note “coordinate with owners agreement with neighboring property owner with regard to this work” (Strand Theatre).
- The city building department requires a letter from the then owner, RFJ Holding (AKA Finkles Hardware, Rachel Finkle) giving permission to change the grade of the alleyway, which Rachel Finkle grants provided that the work is done “as is represented in the building plan”. All documented plans followed the language of the easement guiding the mutually owned alleyway.
- The DRCC grants a General Permit #2.
- This permit states that no changes can be made without prior approval.
- Conditions that apply to all general permits state: The project shall not adversely affect properties that are listed or are eligible for listing on the New Jersey or National Register of Historic Places. J.A.C. 7:45-5.3(b)(1).
- While the Strand Theatre is in the registered Historic District of Lambertville, and it is noted for its significance in DRCC documents, a general permit was granted without permission from the then Strand owner, RFJ Holdings.
- The application was submitted for work to be performed on Strand property without authorization from the Strand owner, RFJ Holdings.
- Calculations for land disturbance and impervious surface on the application did not include disturbance and impervious surface created on the Strand Theatre property.
- October 2019: Tom and I secure a sale contract on the Strand Theater and begin the process of gaining approvals to renovate the warehouse back into an art space. It is discovered that the plans submitted to the City of Lambertville and the DRCC were not followed “as represented in the building plans”, as approved by Rachel Finkle. Deviations from building plans include:
- The lack of a drainage trench designed to manage stormwater run-off from the roof into the alleyway. OPRA requests do not produce any additional documents indicating that an alternative drainage system was engineered to manage stormwater runoff.
- A stone wall that crosses the alleyway and abuts the Strand Theatre, cutting off the Strand Theatres access from the back of the alleyway.
- A new fence running from the northeast corner of the Strand building to the back of the property. While there had been a shorter fence along the easement area (2’ into the strand property) for many years that was installed to protect children from an in-ground pool at 16 Coryell, the new fence installed in 2016 encroaches into the Strand property up to 4.7 feet.
- April 2020: After Rachel Finkle and I request assistance from the city of Lambertville to address these unapproved encroachments, including the fence, we are told by the construction department that this is a civil issue.
- October 2020: I complete the arduous task of gaining approval from the Lambertville Planning Board, the Historical Commission and the DRCC. My application to the planning board requires certified architectural plans, certified site plans, certified surveys, as well as copies of deeds and easements associated with the Strand Theatre. The process to get through all approvals required an investment of nearly $40,000. Certified surveys and site plans show the property line in the same place as all of the surveys submitted by 16 Coryell. My application also required certified notice to neighbors, including 16 Coryell. The project passed unanimously through the Planning Board, The DRCC, and the Historical Commission with tremendous community support, and 16 Coryell did not contest publicly.
- December 2020: 16 Coryell removed the northern most 15 feet of the fence from the Strand property and installed a vehicle gate that would directly interfere with the parking required and previously approved for the Strand renovation project. This vehicle gate did not follow the language of the shared easement and was installed without a permit from the city of Lambertville. The lack of a zoning permit for the installation of this vehicle gate was confirmed by the city construction office on December 16th, 2020. Despite repeated requests from myself and Rachel Finkle that a violation be written and that the city take action to have the gate removed, the construction office did not act.
- February 2021: The owners of 16 Coryell file a lawsuit for adverse possession of the alleyway between the two buildings, as well as part of the Strand parking lot that would interfere with our approved parking. Weighing our substantial investment of time and money into the fully approved renovation of the Strand Theatre, Tom and I decide to move forward with our plans despite the litigation over well documented property lines.
- May 2021: I submit multiple OPRA requests and provide clear evidence that 16 Coryell had no permit for the installation of the vehicle gate, and it is also discovered and confirmed that 16 Coryell did not apply for, or receive, a permit for the installation of the encroaching fence they installed on Strand property in 2016. I request assistance from then Mayor, Julia Fahl and I am promised corrective action. After several months Frank D’Amore leaves his position as zoning officer. No violations are issued, and the encroachments remain.
- November 2021: Tom and I remove 50+ year old wall covering to expose the interior walls of the Strand Theatre and uncover ongoing water damage along the entire eastern side of the building along the base of the building, adjacent to the elevated walkway in the alleyway. Water penetration is consistent with the altered elevation of the alleyway and is believed by multiple experts to be the result of the construction in the alleyway. I file additional OPRA requests with the City of Lambertville and the DRCC to try to make sense of the water infiltration issue. The DRCC claims that no violations occurred, and Lambertville Construction Official Ken Rogers says, “No UCC violations have occurred” and adds, “I’m not in charge of patios.”
- Building plans and permit applications submitted by 16 Coryell to the City of Lambertville and the DRCC, obtained through OPRA requests, show that the total square footage of 16 Coryell is 4312 sq ft. The only part of the lot, as is visible by numerous construction images, that was not disturbed during construction is the original 717 sq ft house and the 82.88 sq ft of the front set back area. This alone calculates 3512.12 of disturbance. Additionally, 16 Coryell did not include the square footage of any disturbance they created on the strand property in their application calculations, which included another 240 sq ft of disturbance, creating a total disturbance of 3,752.12 during the construction project. Drainage requirements should have been applicable in this scenario.
- October 2021: 16 Coryell changes the access code on the alleyway gate and installs additional locks on the rear access gate, and Strand Theatre owners are locked out of the alleyway for the first time since the lot was created by The Strand Theatre Company in 1918. This action directly impedes our ability to repair and maintain our building. The water infiltration is ongoing and is the subject of continued litigation. The water infiltration is repairable, and to date we have been forced to spend more on “experts” ordered by the court than it would have cost to repair the issue. While we have the legal right to remove the fence and the gate to gain access to our property, we are advised that it would make us appear aggressive in the eyes of the court handling the adverse possession issue. We continue to navigate this in a very expensive and lengthy legal process while the Historic Strand Theatre suffers ongoing degradation.
- January 2022: The Lambertville building department issues a violation to Tom and I for $4,000 for doing demo without a permit. The city offers to reduce the fine to $250 if we are willing to apply for a demo permit. The removal of wall coverings is NOT demolition, and while this is confirmed by the Office of Regulatory Affairs, we decide to pay the fine and move on, rather than battle the construction department that we will need to deal with throughout the renovation process.
- April 2022: With a new administration in place, I request assistance from the new Mayor, Andrew Nowick. Mayor Nowick calls a meeting with the new zoning officer and the building department. The building department demands yet another certified survey from 16 Coryell. This survey clearly shows the property lines, as has each one issued since the Strand Theatre Company created the lot in 1918. The survey also shows clear new encroachments that were created as part of 16 Coryell’s renovation and indicates the new fences crossing 16 Coryell’s property lines on the East and West and Northern boundaries, though most egregiously into the Strand property.
- August 2022. A violation for the improper installation of the fence and violation for installing the fence without zoning approval is finally issued, over 1.5 years after the violation was confirmed by the Lambertville Building department. This violation demands the removal of the fence within two weeks, and a fine of $2,000 per day that the fence remains. The fence remains.
- September 2022: Seeking assistance in addressing the inactivity of the regulatory entities including the City of Lambertville and the DRCC, I write to Senator Shirley Turner.
- October 3rd, 2022. Mayor Nowick emails me to say “Ken Rogers said we won’t pursue anything with the neighbors until the Civil case has been decided — which makes sense. Once the civil matter has been decided, the City can proceed based on any judgement sent down by the court. Otherwise, it may look to the court that we are interfering in a matter where the court’s jurisdiction supersedes ours.” I replied the same day to express ardent disagreement to this argument for the lack of enforcement. No other court will be deciding whether the city issued a valid violation. This is under the jurisdiction of the City of Lambertville, and no other governing body.
- October 24th, Senator Turner replies to my letter and lets me know that she’s directed staff to contact the Attorney Generals Office regarding the DRCC, and offers that “In my assessment, your concerns belong at the municipal level and should be addressed by your locally elected officials.”
- While the Attorney Generals office has been responsive to my inquiries, they have stated “the Office of the Attorney General will not participate in any conversation initiated by the City of Lambertville with Commission staff unless the City requests their own counsel to attend.
- December 2022. I visit Mayor Nowick again to express my concerns and ask again that the city support this project and my fully approved plans by enforcing this violation now. Mayor Nowick responds via email to say “The City recognizes that the provisions of the City Code must be enforced. After further review, however, the City is concerned that an enforcement action at this time may interfere with the pending civil action and could potentially expose the City to adverse legal action. Upon resolution of the litigation, the City, in accordance with the requirements set forth in the City Code, will reserve all rights with respect to enforcement of any violation. Please continue to update me on the status of the litigation.”
It seems that the city is concerned about being exposed to “adverse legal action”. Rather than using their authority to uphold codes for the good of its citizens, it seems that they are letting fear of litigation stop them from enforcement. The fines attached to the violation they issued would total in excess of $266,000 today. This is clearly enough to manage whatever legal fees might be involved in enforcing the violation, should the city suffer any “adverse legal action”. In contrast, we continue to suffer ongoing damages associated with the inaction of the City of Lambertville since the first confirmation of a violation in December of 2020 that the City neglected to act on. The City of Lambertville has the power and the authority to do its part in protecting the application for renovation that was ratified by the Planning board in November of 2020 yet fear of litigation stops them.
If Lambertville residence, friends, and neighbors would like to urge the City to support the fully approved renovation of the Strand Theatre by using their authority to enforce the codes and violations they create for the benefit of all citizens in support of this project, we encouraged you to write to our elected officials with the email links at the top of this post. I also plan to attend the City Council meeting on January 19th at 7pm to express my concerns and ask the City Council for support. If you are able to join me, please do.
In the name of more art, more fun, and a culturally vibrant community, I thank you for your support and encouragement in bringing this vision to life. Kelly Sullivan