HARRISBURG—Twenty years ago, Howard Henry was homeless and sleeping on a mattress at a friend’s warehouse in Wellsville, Pa.
He was going through a messy divorce and had worked as sales representative, but was ready to start something new.
That’s when Henry and his friend hatched a plan to sell used tires. Henry eventually grew the business into a successful tire shop off Cameron Street in Harrisburg.
But Henry’s two-decades of hard work came crashing down this week when he had to close his doors and lay off 12 employees because of damage from someone else’s wall that collapsed onto his tire warehouse five months ago.
The wall collapse May 5 dumped tons of dirt, bricks and concrete onto Henry’s warehouse. The exposed dirt wall caused additional damage June 25 after heavy rains sent a secondary wave of debris into Henry’s warehouse, collapsing a portion of his roof.
Despite engineer reports recommending immediate action, no one has moved to clean up the mess crushing Henry’s business. The question is: Why not?
Officials from the city of Harrisburg said they are doing what is within their power: citing the absentee property owners with code violations and condemning one of their apartment buildings.
The owner of The McFarland apartments, meanwhile, has appealed the city’s actions, further stalling the case. A hearing date before the city’s codes appeals board is set for Oct. 20 for the condemnation order.
The owners of the McFarland, who bought the property about four years ago, haven’t started cleaning up yet because are waiting to see if their insurance company will cover the cost, said attorney Adam Klein.
“We made a claim to our insurance carrier when this first happened,” Klein said Friday. “We’re awaiting a determination on coverage at this point. It’s still ongoing.
My client doesn’t want to do anything until we know if we’re covered and to what extent. Unfortunately it’s taking this long for the company to make this decision.”
Meanwhile, the apartment owners deny owning the wall. Records about the origin of the wall are hard to come by, Klein said leaving it unclear who owns the 107-year-old wall.
But McFarland’s parking lot, and a car from that parking lot, are clearly resting on top of Henry’s roof, so doesn’t that necessitate some action? Klein said they must first get word from the insurance company.
“We are completely sympathetic to his plight,” Klein said of small business owner. “We have displaced tenants as well. It’s been a disaster all around.”
Beyond the question of who owns the wall, there is the question of who caused the wall to collapse. Engineering reports released this week detail invasive water and shifting ground under the McFarland property, but Klein said his client believes PennDOT is to blame for the collapse.
State workers jack-hammered a sidewalk off the wall and poured thousands of gallons of water on the bridge last year as part of extensive renovations.
Jacob Friedman, of New Jersey, one of the owners of the McFarland, signed a release allowing PennDOT access to his property to do the work. But Klein said the work still needed to be done correctly.
“My clients aren’t engineers, but PennDOT has very good engineers,” Klein said. “You would assume they go through their paces before starting a project, but it looks like they didn’t in this case. I’m not sure if they understood this wall and its stability, or lack thereof.”
Klein said that PennDOT could start cleaning up immediately with bulldozers and equipment it already owns.
“They could go in there tomorrow,” Klein said. “If they feel my client is to blame, they could try to get restitution.”
PennDOT, for its part, has denied that its work last year to remove a damaged concrete overhang from the wall contributed to the wall collapse months later.
The state agency performed work on the wall “as a good neighbor,”according to PennDOT officials’ previous statements about the project. Henry on Friday asked PennDOT to be a good neighbor again by starting the cleanup efforts.
Henry also asked Gov. Tom Wolf to intervene or bring the parties together for a resolution so he could reopen his business.
But Wolf’s spokesman said his office doesn’t have jurisdiction.
“Governor Wolf certainly sympathizes with Mr. Henry, and the governor’s office plans to reach out to meet with him in the coming days,” said Jeffrey Sheridan. “But the state does not have jurisdiction over the cleanup of this collapse and there is no direct action the state can take regarding this matter.”
PennDOT owns the adjacent Mulberry Street bridge, but the wall didn’t support the bridge and the collapse hasn’t affected a state roadway, Sheridan said.
“So PennDOT cannot order the property owner to clean up or fix the wall.”
City officials say their hands are likewise tied— what authority do they have to force one private property owner to compensate another private property owner?
The city doesn’t have the millions of dollars required to start the clean up, or even enough money in its demolition budget to tear down the McFarland building. Then there’s the issue of whether the city could legally tear down a building on private property if the owner refused.
Dauphin County commissioners have declined to help, Henry said. A spokeswoman for the commissioners did not return a request for comment Friday morning.
In the end, the wall collapse in Harrisburg exposed more than dirt. It exposed the limitations municipalities can face while trying to hold absentee property owners accountable.
Henry’s insurance company initially refused to cover his losses, but has been working with him in recent weeks after he hired a private adjustor. It was his work through his insurance company, however, that exposed the issues that caused him to close his doors this week.
Henry hired an engineer to determine how best he could button up his warehouse for the winter, since the back wall is damaged and the roof collapsed. But the engineer told Henry he had bigger problems than that. The engineer concluded work needed to be done on McFarland’s property and the exposed wall before Henry’s tire shop would be safe for occupancy.