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Hearing on wall collapse in Harrisburg postponed again

HARRISBURG—A city appeals board hearing designed to jumpstart the clean up of a wall collapse in Harrisburg has been postponed again.

The hearing, originally set for Oct. 20, falls on Jewish holiday and the owner of The McFarland apartment building at the center of the dispute, who is an Orthodox Jew, said he could not attend.

City officials agreed to postpone the hearing before a Building and Housing Code Appeals Board until mid-December, according to Adam Klein, the attorney for the McFarland apartments. But Mayor Eric Papenfuse learned of the delay Tuesday and insisted that the city-appointed board try to schedule the meeting at the end of October, if possible.

City codes officials were still trying to determine if the apartment owner and board members could schedule a meeting before the one currently scheduled on Dec. 15.

The delay comes on the heels of a series of delays in the case that has resulted in complete inaction at the site of the collapse near the Mulberry Street Bridge for more than five months. The May 5 collapse sent tons of dirt, debris and concrete onto a tire shop below.

A portion of the parking lot for The McFarland apartments, including a car, still sit upon the tire shop. No one has taken action as the various entities associated with the property, or that worked on the property, have tried to distance themselves from liability.

The owner of the tire shop said he had to close his doors last week because of the continued instability of the exposed wall above his business, as documented in  engineering reports. Howard Henry, owner of Howard Tire and Auto, said he had to lay off 12 employees.

If someone would act quickly to stabilize the exposed wall and adjacent apartment building, Henry said he could reopen. But time is of the essence, he said. The more time that passes means more lost customers and lower chances of being able to hire back his employees before they find other jobs.

The Dec. 15 hearing before the city board is designed to determine whether the city’s condemnation order against The McFarland apartments was properly issued.

The order issued in late June by the city’s assistant codes director Art Emerick, mandated that the building’s eight apartments be evacuated and that the owner take action to stabilize the building.

The owners of The McFarland, Isaac Dohany and Jacob Friedman, both of New Jersey, appealed the condemnation order.

If the board determines that the order is legitimate, then the city could start citing Dohany and Friedman daily for failing to comply with the condemnation order.

A delay in the hearing means a delay in the city’s ability to issue those citations.

Still, Emerick said, citations won’t mean much if the property owner doesn’t have the resources to start cleanup.

The apartment owners are also fighting the city on another front: in Dauphin County Housing Court.

Emerick had cited The McFarland for housing code violations after the collapse, specifically, failure to correct grading and drainage issues. But the owners appealed that citation to the housing court and then asked for a continuance until December 13.

If the city prevails in Housing Court, the judge could issue fines and penalties. But the Housing Court judge typically focuses on ways to ensure compliance, city officials said, instead of levying penalties.

Money from a property owner that goes to fines is money that can’t go to fix code violations, Emerick said.

But the situation may not come down to the results of the hearings, said Klein, the attorney for the property owner.

“Hopefully it will get resolved before that with an insurance settlement,” he said.

Klein said his client has not acted to clean up the debris because they are waiting to hear about insurance coverage.

The exposed wall and unstable apartment building pose a potential threat of loss of life, according to an engineering firm hired by the tire shop owner. That’s what prompted his evacuation last week.

But the situation doesn’t pose an “immediate” threat, Emerick said. If it did, then the city would have to consider other evacuations and street closures to protect the public. The city doesn’t have the resources to clean up the debris or demolish the apartment building, he said, so city officials instead would take action to keep the public away.

If a smaller property in the city posed an immediate threat, he said, the city would typically take action to tear down the property and seek reimbursement from the owner through invoices or a lien on the property. But cleanup or demolition at The McFarland site is likely to cost millions,” he said.

“This is all new territory for us,” Emerick said. “It’s no easy fix for anyone.”

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