Was this 19th Century home illegally demolished?

In 1894, the Mickel family and the rowdy tavern they owned and tended along Bergen Boulevard determined the boundary between the dry borough of Leonia and what would later become Fort Lee.

Today, 122 years after Leonia was incorporated as a borough, one of its houses has again driven a wedge between the two towns -- this time as a pile of rubble.

A Fort Lee developer tore down an abandoned, two-story home known as the “Mickel house” last month, triggering a battle over jurisdiction, land use law and the construction of a six-story, 59-unit residential building abutting Fort Lee’s municipal line with Leonia.

Officials in both boroughs say the Mickel house straddled the municipal line, though by how much is a point of contention. State tax records indicate that the parcel associated with the house — 608 Fort Lee Rd. in Leonia and 608 Main St. in Fort Lee — is split between the boroughs. The 0.086-acre residential section was assessed by Leonia while 0.072 acres of vacant land were assessed by Fort Lee. 

Leonia Mayor Judah Zeigler said the entire structure stood in Leonia and has accused Border Development, which owned the house, and the Fort Lee Building Department, which issued the demolition permit, of illegally encroaching into the borough. 

Leonia was never notified or asked for permission, he said. 

“It’s nothing short of outrageous,” Zeigler said. “We are very concerned about what, frankly, has been a flagrant disregard for all applicable ordinances regarding this property.” 

Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich said he did not know enough about the situation to comment.  

The planned development is situated on a hill in Fort Lee, which is booming with similar dense redevelopment projects. Officials in Leonia fear the six-story residential complex would hover over their smaller and sleepier borough. 

Zeigler said the partnership has been issued a summons for the demolition but continues to flout Leonia law by moving soil on Leonia’s side of the line without a soil movement permit. 

Border Development is a partnership of Vincent Luppino, Russell Luppino, RVN Development LLC and Lexington Edgewater LLC.  

Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera is listed as a managing member of RVN Development, according to business records. Paul Kaufman, a former mayor of Leonia who now serves as an attorney for Border Development and municipal counsel to Paramus, is listed as the managing member of Lexington Edgewater. 

Kaufman, who represents Border Development as its attorney, disputed allegations of any wrongdoing. 

He said a 2009 settlement of a lawsuit filed by a previous developer of the property with Leonia required the borough to immediately issue a demolition permit for the house and Border Development assumed it had done so. 

“There were no conditions on this,” Kaufman said. 

Vincent Luppino declined to comment. LaBarbiera could not be reached for comment. 

Zeigler and borough attorney Brian Chewcaskie argue that the settlement agreement, which stemmed from the borough’s attempt to give a historic designation to the Mickel house and prevent its demolition for another project, has no bearing on the development being built today. 

“It was for an application that is no longer in existence,” Zeigler said. “It’s a specious argument to excuse this illegal behavior.” 

Chewcaskie noted in a letter sent to Kaufman on Aug. 18 that even if the agreement were valid, it gave jurisdiction over the demolition to Leonia and not Fort Lee. 

Fort Lee’s construction official, Brian Ribarro, who signed off on the demolition request, declined to comment. 

Since the demolition, borough engineer Robert Costa, Chewcaskie and Kaufman have continued to spar over the legality of soil movement on the former site of the Mickel house and whether it requires a permit from Leonia. 

Costa notified Border Development in early August that its work on the property — the movement of soil from Fort Lee’s side to Leonia’s side to fill the house’s basement area — required a review by the Leonia Planning Board and certification that the soil is clean, according to letters obtained by The Record. 

Kaufman countered that the volume of soil is too small to necessitate a permit and has not changed the countering or drainage of the site to require one either.  

Chewcaskie, the borough attorney, disputed that account in a letter to Kaufman on Tuesday.

“It is my suggestion that, rather than waste any more time, an appropriate permit application be filed,” Chewcaskie wrote. 

Officials and residents in Leonia say the razing of the Mickel house has reignited concerns that the developer and Fort Lee were giving no thought to the development's impact on Leonia. 

The community long believed the house would be spared, Zeigler and Costa said.  

A 2015 site plan prepared by Border Development’s engineer stated that the house would remain and that no work would begin until its structural integrity was secured. However, a 2016 Fort Lee Planning Board resolution amending the final site approval contained testimony from the engineer that the house would be demolished.  

Kaufman said the plan to raze the house dates back to 2007. 

There were two attempts to develop the total 0.73-acre property around that time, both dogged by strong opposition from Leonia.

 

The community turned out in force to argue that a large project along the municipal line would soar above nearby buildings, snarl traffic on nearby Routes 1-9 & 46 and cause sewage and groundwater problems. 

Jeffrey McCartney, a former Leonia Zoning Board member who led an effort to quash a nine-story, 36-unit commercial building proposed for the site in 2006, said the same arguments apply to Border Development’s building. 

“It’s the classic case of taking 10 pounds of sugar and squeezing it into a 5-pound bag,” he said. “It’s the wrong building in the wrong space.” 

The property had been zoned for commercial uses, including retail and office, until 2014, when Fort Lee designated it a redevelopment area and changed the permitted use to multi-family residential. 

A study prepared for the borough by planning and real estate consultants that year noted that the surrounding area in Leonia mainly consisted of one- and two-family homes. 

“Clearly, any new development within the study area must be sensitive to the adjacent residential neighborhood in Leonia, as evidenced by two unsuccessful attempts to develop the property with commercial uses in the recent past,” the report stated. 

Zeigler said Leonia never received that courtesy. It is now fighting to be heard. 

“We recognize that the borough of Fort Lee has the right to do anything they want in their borders but they have an obligation to work cooperatively with municipalities when the development negatively affects the quality of life in those municipalities,” Zeigler said. “We remain committed to aggressively asserting our rights. We will not stand by while development occurs on our borders.” 

Leonia officials have advised Fort Lee to reject any construction permits requested by Border Development until the developer has satisfied all statutory requirements related to the property and asked the borough to halt all approvals until storm water runoff, soil movement and other issues long associated with the land are resolved, Zeigler said. 

Sokolich expressed support for the Fort Lee Planning Board. 

“I have confidence in my Board that they weighed all the appropriate factors,” he said. 

Published by The Record/NorthJersey.com, 2017. Photos by Chris Monroe and Danielle Richards.