City cites Claremont property owner over demolition of building

A debris pile remains after the demolition of a dilapidated house and barn at 102 Washington Street in Claremont, N.H., on Monday, May 13, 2024. The property owner was cited by Claremont’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for creating a nuisance by failing to remove the debris pile, which must also be tested for asbestos. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A debris pile remains after the demolition of a dilapidated house and barn at 102 Washington Street in Claremont, N.H., on Monday, May 13, 2024. The property owner was cited by Claremont’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for creating a nuisance by failing to remove the debris pile, which must also be tested for asbestos. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 05-16-2024 4:22 PM

CLAREMONT — Atta Ullah thought he was solving a problem for himself and the city earlier this spring when he paid $22,000 to demolish a vacant farmhouse on Washington Street that had become a dilapidated hazard.

Instead, Ullah appears to have created a bigger — and likely more costly — problem with environmental implications after he failed to get a proper permit nor have the 1820-era structure tested for asbestos prior to demolition in late March.

Ullah, a Springfield, Vt., resident, bought the property in 2005 for $225,000, and the building had collapsed partially before being demolished.

On April 1, he was cited for a violation of the city’s nuisance ordinance.

Last week, the Zoning Board of Adjustment denied Ullah’s appeal of that citation.

The city’s Chief Building Official and Health Officer Leigh Hays said in his letter to Ullah that the “condition of the premises constitutes a public health and attractive nuisance” and must be removed per New Hampshire state law.

Hays further ordered Ullah to abate the violations by the lawful removal of the items and materials.

Since the demolition, Ullah has been told to cover the debris pile, which sits just off Washington Street, but has failed to do so. That raised concerns among zoning board members about contaminants leaching from the site.

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This week, Ullah said he hired a contractor who took samples from the debris and will test it for asbestos and other contaminants. It will take about 10 days before he gets results, he said.

“When the results come back, we will handle it accordingly,” Ullah said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

When asked why he has not covered the pile with a waterproof covering as instructed to do so by the city and state, Ullah said he has been focused on getting rid of the debris. He also has not provided the zoning board with a reason for not covering the pile.

Hays said Ullah has shown a willingness to fix the outstanding violations on the property, but he could not say how long the process would take.

“We have made great progress in a short period,” Hays said. “We are actively working with him and are having conversations almost on a daily basis.”

Stephen Zabel, senior asbestos specialist with the state Department of Environmental Services who has visited the site, said in an April 18 email to Hays that since an asbestos inspection was not completed, the state’s policy is to proceed as if asbestos is present.

Zabel cited a number of state environmental laws he alleges Ullah has violated regarding pre-demolition inspections, public notification of asbestos abatement and notification to the state of the planned demolition.

A message left for Zabel this week was not returned. But Hays said he does not believe DES has “flagged” potential runoff into a nearby brook as a possible contamination concern.

Ullah told the city zoning board on May 6 that when he received an email from Hays telling him that the house had to be taken down, he immediately went to Hays’ office.

He said Hays only told him he wanted the house gone, so he hired a contractor two days later and had the demolition done.

“I did what he asked me to do,” Ullah told the zoning board. “I did not know I needed a permit.”

Hays, however, provided several emails to the board that were sent to and acknowledged by Ullah between April and September 2023, advising Ullah he needed to demolish the building, but had to receive a permit and test for asbestos prior to doing so.

“In the notice of violation, it does describe that he needs to pull a demolition permit, test for asbestos, then demolish the structure properly and remove the debris,” Hays said. “That was all signed for. He was well aware of his responsibility.”

In his April 1 letter to Ullah, Hays said that he faces daily fines for failing to abate the violations, and if the city has to do the work, he will be liable for the expense.

The ordinance states fines of up to $275 for the first offense and $550 for the second offense “may” be imposed for each violation per day; Hays said the city has not yet begun fining Ullah as it works with him to properly dispose of the debris.

When asked several times at the zoning board meeting why he did not follow the process outlined in the notice of violations, Ullah kept coming back to the meeting he had with Hays shortly before demolishing the building.

“I just did what he asked me to do,” Ullah told the board.

Ullah also said he did not have the debris removed at the time of demolition because the contractor wanted additional $55,000 and he could not afford that.

“The problem is (...) that is going to cost you more than $55,000 to get rid of that pile now,” said zoning board member Mike Lemieux, who owns a construction business.

He said he once paid more than $200,000 under similar circumstances for a smaller pile of debris.

State officials “are going to treat that whole pile as contaminated,” he told Ullah.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.