A couple who owns a small plot of farmland on Park Avenue near the Lincoln Tunnel alleges that the Township of Weehawken has blocked their efforts for 15 years to clean up their property and develop it into luxury apartments.
Konstantinos and Helen Natsis, who have fought numerous court battles against Weehawken over their property at 353 Park Ave., have also leveled allegations of political retaliation in recent media interviews.
The troubles began around 2004, when the Superior Court of New Jersey ordered the township to perform a slope stabilization project on the Natsises’ property.
That project was done to bring the slope in line with the town’s steep slope ordinance. The ordinance limits development on the Palisades Cliffs to protect its structural integrity and the integrity of properties above it.
The town’s work included repairing pipes and installing fencing to avoid rock slides. The town also worked on a leaking clay sewage pipe that extended uphill.
The township says that in the years after the project, they received numerous complaints of Konstantinos performing work on his slope in violation of the ordinance. Konstantinos says he had to do the cleanup and other work because of what the town did. His property also features what used to be a parking lot that is now filled in with soil, near the sidewalk.
Recently, media outlets became aware of ongoing struggles between the couple and the township, and have interviewed them. Konstantinos told the Reporter that a lot of the problems began because the township’s project was poorly executed.
He claims the township’s contractor left truckloads of soil and loose rocks onto their property, undermining its structural integrity. He said he had to create makeshift terraces to stabilize the slope. The couple also contends that the slope project failed to stop the leaking sewage pipe.
“They have to say that I violated the ordinance, of course,” Konstantinos said, as he showed a reporter around his soil plot, a tangled marriage of cardboards, pipes and tarps. “I worked here from the time I bought the property in 2000. I cleaned it all up – this was garbage.”
In August 2008, the township filed an “Order to Show Cause with Restraints” complaint against the Natsises, citing complaints from residents about their construction activity. The town complained about alleged jackhammering and chipping away at the cliffs.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Oliveri granted an order restraining the Natsises from removing and/or destroying natural rock or similar work on their site.
In October 2008, the township filed an emergent application in state court, arguing the couple had violated the New Jersey Environmental Rights Act and New Jersey Uniform Construction Code through their work. The township requested access to their property to assess the situation. They got access the next day. An official entered the property and issued two construction violations against the Natsises, with accruing daily fines.
The town then moved to implement repair work on the slope. They filed an amended complaint in December 2009.
After a nine-day trial on Feb. 27, 2012, in Superior Count of New Jersey, Olivieri found that “as early as July 2006, [Konstantinos] was observed working on the slope” according to legal documents. He ordered the couple to remediate and restore their site within 120 days to comply with the ordinance.
That same year, Konstantinos filed and received a 251 exemption from the Hudson Essex Passaic Soil Conservation District to clean up soil on his property. However, the HEPSCD issued a stop work order in January 2013.
To date, the Natsises owe the town $350,000 in fines, also stemming from damages done to the cliff and cleanup work the town has performed on their property. Natsis says he’ll pay for that “over my dead body.”
The couple said last week that their engineer submitted plans for a residential building to the town’s Building Department back in 2002, but they claim the township stalled on them and the plans went nowhere.
This past March 30, Superior Court Judge Christine Vanek heard a complaint Konstantinos filed against the township, challenging their denial of his permit application to remove soil from property next to his.
But after that hearing, the court entered judgment favoring the township, saying Konstantinos had failed to satisfy conditions to halt the HEPSCD stop work order, and that the town could not legally issue him a permit based on that order.
The township aggressively responded to the Natsis’s claims in a recent sit-down interview with the Weehawken Reporter.
They refuted Konstantinos’ allegation that they removed his retaining walls during the 2004 slope project.
Mayor Richard Turner and officials showed pictures of the property after the project. Photos show a stone retaining wall topped off by a protective fence, with a parking lot clearly seen below it. Officials said another retaining wall, not clear in pictures, was in the rear of the Natsis property.
Turner also contrasted that with a recent photo of the site, showing the soil erosion filling the parking lot. Turner alleged that someone took out the retaining walls after the town installed them.
Turner said, “It’s our obligation to protect our neighbors – his neighbors call often to let us know how concerned they are. The state soil conservation people say they get calls from his neighbors.”
Natsis told more than one media outlet that Turner is angry that the couple did not support Turner in his 2002 election. Turner responded, “Through every court case, he never brought up politics. Politics is brought up now because he’s at the end of the road. We have a $350,000 lien on the property. He [allegedly] destroyed what we restored.” They have to go before a board. They didn’t do that
Construction Code Official Frank Tattoli said, “If he doesn’t comply with the requirement of the Hudson Soil Conservation people, I have to stop him,” in reference to allegations he has chased the couple’s contractors away.
Responding to the allegation that the town has failed to stop the leaking sewer line, a town lawyer said, “That is impossible, because we have a pump station that has been operational since 2007.”
Natsis also criticized the town for recently installing concrete barriers on his property. The town contends this was necessary because residents complained his soil blocked the sidewalk. Turner said the town told him to clean the mess, but he allegedly refuses to do so.
Turner said the township plans to pursue the $350,000 lien the couple owes, and is discussing future options against them.
But Konstantinos and Helen are confident they’ll be able to hold on to the property.
“We’re going to win,” Konstantinos said. “[Turner’s] not going to get my property.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org