Holyoke councilors seek action on street blocked by crumbling church

  • A fence blocks Walnut Street in Holyoke, where Iglesia el Dios Incomparable was ordered closed in 2018 after bricks from the church's facade dangerously crumbled to the ground below. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • A fence blocks Walnut Street in Holyoke, where Iglesia el Dios Incomparable was ordered closed in 2018 after bricks from the church’s facade began falling to the ground below. DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • A fence blocks part of Hamilton Street in Holyoke, where the roof of a building blew off. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • A screenshot of a Google Maps photo taken in 2018 shows a fence blocking Walnut Street in Holyoke on the corner of Appleton Street, where Iglesia el Dios Incomparable was ordered closed in 2018 after bricks from the church's facade dangerously crumbled to the ground below. Dusty Christensen—GOOGLE MAPS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2019 10:28:46 PM

HOLYOKE — Since February 2018, some residents of Walnut Street have had to deal with a chain-link fence blocking their road entirely.

Weeds grow tall and litter gathers behind the large fence that blocks a large section of Walnut Street on the corner Appleton Street, where Iglesia el Dios Incomparable sits. The tall brick church was ordered closed in 2018 after bricks from its facade tumbled to the ground below. A fence was put up for safety, and remains there today, closing off a public road and sidewalk in the process.

Jerry Rosario, a resident of Carlos Vega Townhomes across from the church, nodded his head when asked Wednesday whether the fence is frustrating to neighbors.

“Yeah, but they haven’t fixed it,” Rosario said with a shrug. People have to park elsewhere or drive around the blocked road, he added. “They have to go a long way.”

The fence is one of two — the other is on the corner of Main and Hamilton streets — that are blocking public roads in Holyoke.

Both were discussed at Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council’s Ordinance Committee. Several city councilors called for action to address the issue after Ward 2 Councilor Terence Murphy filed an order to discuss with the city’s building commissioner and solicitor the merits of issuing fines to property owners who block public streets for extended periods.

“To me, there’s no accountability for the owner of that property to resolve their problem in a timely manner,” Murphy said.

The fencing situations on Walnut and Hamilton streets highlight the ways that the city can, or can’t, compel a property owner to make fixes needed to remove a fence.

In the case of the church, acting City Solicitor Crystal Barnes said there isn’t much the city can do. Fixing the church steeple would cost six figures and the church doesn’t have that kind of money, according to Barnes, who said for that same reason issuing a fine wouldn’t do much good, either.

“There’s really no recourse there because the fence has to be there,” Barnes told the Ordinance Committee. “Sometimes you’re chasing an empty wallet.”

Barnes said the church’s leadership is looking to sell the property. In the meantime, Barnes added that the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development is planning to walk through the building with its owners to see what kind of funding might be available to help make the repairs needed to fix the property.

At Large Councilor Joseph McGiverin questioned why property owners aren’t being billed directly for the cost of putting a fence up.

“I think we have to just do the work and bill them,” McGiverin said. If they didn’t pay, a lien could be placed on the property, which would have to be cleared before title to the property could be transferred.

McGiverin also stressed that general fund money should not be used to do work on a private property.

The church is in Ward 1, and Councilor Gladys Lebron-Martinez said in a phone interview Wednesday that people in her ward have been curious to know what will happen with it. She said she previously has told a parish member that there isn’t much the city can do to financially assist a private organization.

“I’m concerned that it’s a historic building,” she said. “It has been there for a lot of years, but it’s also a hazard having the street closed for so long in an event of a fire or something like that.”

Lebron-Martinez said the city had a meeting with the property owners on Wednesday afternoon. She said she hopes somebody buys and saves the property by turning it into housing, for example.

“Each property poses a unique problem,” Barnes said. The building on Hamilton and Main, for example, was one where the city had a bit more success.

In that case, part of the building’s roof blew off. A fence was put up for safety, blocking Hamilton Street in the process. Barnes said the owner was in the middle of selling the property. Once the new owners came in, the city issued a fine and was able to compel the owner to begin work on fixing the roof.

As a result of that work, the owner was able to move the fence over to open up one lane on the street, Barnes said.

Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley made an order to have the building commissioner and a Department of Public Works representative come before the City Council next week. He said the two should provide a plan for moving forward on Walnut Street and answer several questions about Hamilton Street: who paid for the fence, how much did it cost, and if the city paid for it, why was that the case.

The City Council meets next on Tuesday.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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