NAUGATUCK – Former Burgess Lois Ackerman has six weeks before the town razes the house her grandfather built in 1890.
After three hours of testimony on Tuesday night, the Board of Mayor and Burgesses dolefully affirmed the previous decision by the Building Code Board of Appeals to demolish the house at 146 Walnut St. in a unanimous vote.
“It’s probably one of the most difficult and upsetting motions I’ve made in my eight years on the board,” Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi said on making a motion to uphold the Board of Appeal’s order but push back the demolition date to Jan. 10 from Sept. 1.
The Victorian home is filled with heirlooms and family memories. Ackerman’s father was born and died in the house, and she lived there until Dec. 18, 2008.
Although sympathetic to Ackerman’s emotional attachment, Rossi and the other board members were concerned with the danger the building posed for police and firemen as well as potential intruders.
“I think right now our greater concern has to be for the safety and well-being of everyone,” Rossi said.
Ackerman argued her home was boarded up and padlocked, and didn’t pose an immediate danger.
Bill Herzmann, Naugatuck’s building inspector, said once he received neighbors’ complaints about the house’s dilapidated condition, he was obligated to act or he and the town could be held liable if anyone was hurt.
“Once we know, we have to act. It’s not always something we want to do, but we have to,” Herzmann said.
Herzmann said the rot in the floor and ceiling is so bad “you can almost crush it with your hands.”
Ackerman’s attorney, Kevin McSherry, said his client was looking for an opportunity to repair the property.
According to Ackerman, she has tried every recourse available to her to repair the house since she was first notified that it was a hazardous property in August 2007.
“It has always been my intention to repair my house,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman has not yet raised the money to pay the estimated $80,000 for the repairs.
McSherry said Ackerman applied for, but was not able to secure, a reverse mortgage on her house to pay for the repairs. She also attempted to sell part of the land surrounding the house and work with a contractor to rent out part of the house once it was repaired, but to no avail, he said. Ackerman tried to sell some of the antiques within her home, but was not able to find a buyer, McSherry said.
In 2008, Ackerman paid a contractor $5,000 to help stabilize the building, but it has since fallen into further disrepair with exposure to the elements.
Ackerman attempted to prove that she had not been given due process.
She complained the borough put out a bid to demolish the house while she was still in the process of appeals. She said she was not granted due process. According to Ackerman, she never heard back from the mayor after sending him a letter and never received a demolition order.
She did not attend an initial meeting with Herzmann because she thought it would be a private meeting and she had personal grievances against him.
“He had already told me the first time he came to my house that he would demolish my building,” Ackerman said.
Mary Lou Sharon, a friend of Ackerman’s, testified on her behalf.
“Her rights have been reprieved. She’s tried very hard to find other avenues,” Sharon said. “She was and still is a victim.”
Sharon said other houses in a similar state have not been demolished.
Ackerman’s neighbor, Edward Walker of 55 Phyllis Drive, wrote her a letter of support saying Ackerman should make the decision to live in her house.
“Isn’t it her right to take that risk?” he wrote.
Mayor Bob Mezzo said he thought the process had been fair.
“For me sitting here, it’s been quite a sad and emotional night,” Mezzo said.
Several of the board members complained that the decision should fall to them and called to revise the process set out in the town’s charter.
“I think (Bill Herzmann’s) decision should stand. It shouldn’t come before this board,” Burgess Robert Burns said, adding the appeals process should be rewritten.
After her power and water were shut off in December 2008, Ackerman spent several months in a hotel and temporary apartment before moving to Oak Terrace, a state housing facility, in August 2009.
If she cannot pay for storage, Ackerman’s affects will be auctioned off by the town, she said.
“Everything I own can be taken from me,” Ackerman said. “To think that my family home which, you know, has been there for about 110 or 120 years, all that will be left is a piece of property with four inches of topsoil. And I’m sorry. I’m absolutely amazed that this could happen.”
Herzmann said he had tried to get grants to help Ackerman, but was unable to because of her socio-economic situation.
“She almost falls through the cracks,” he said.
Attorney Edward Fitzpatrick, the town council, said even though the decision was made, the building official has discretion to halt the demolition if significant progress is made on the house.
McSherry said he needed to discuss the decision with his client, but it is likely they will file an appeal to the Waterbury Superior Court to buy more time to make repairs.
“There has been no end to her efforts,” he said.