James Bender, who served as zoning officer for the city from 1993 to 1999, recently sent a letter to the Reporter complaining about the tactics of building inspector Al Arezzo, a former colleague with whom Bender is now in a legal dispute.
At the heart of the dispute is a modest three-story brownstone at 317 Willow Ave. that contains two apartments and commercial space.
Bender and his brother own and hope to rehabilitate the building. But Bender's dealings with Arezzo have led to a dispute so thorny that the state Bureau of Regulatory Affairs took jurisdiction over the property on Aug. 9, making it the only property in town that will be inspected by state regulators rather than the city's building inspection team.
"This is not something that we do lightly," said E.J. Miranda, a spokesperson for the state's department of community affairs, last week. "But in this case it seemed that it was the only option."
Trouble appears to have begun when Bender purchased the sleepy two-family home with his brother in 1997.
Bender, who has filed suit saying that Arezzo incorrectly held up the construction and cost him $100,000, said that around that time, Bender wanted Arezzo to conduct a "rough inspection" of the property. This is required before any major construction can proceed. But according to both parties, on the day Bender wanted the property inspected, Arezzo was on vacation.
Bender hired an inspector that the city had used previously on other properties when Arezzo was unavailable. After receiving the thumbs-up from the inspector, Bender began the rehab work. Bender says that he cleared the inspection with Environmental Services Director Tim Calligy before proceeding. But Arezzo soon placed a stop work order on the property, claiming that the rough inspection was incomplete.
"I asked them what they had looked for, and there were a lot of holes in the inspection," Arezzo said last week. "So we hired an outside firm to do it. I didn't want him saying that I was biased. And they found that there were electrical problems, structural problems and fire stopping problems. These were all things that they had not looked at first."
Bender, a Rutherford resident, took the issue to the Essex County Construction Board of Appeals, where he and his lawyers argued successfully that the initial rough order inspection should stand. Arezzo did not testify at the hearing. He claimed that the case should have been heard at the local level and said that there was no good reason to have had it transferred to Essex County.
Bender says that he was forced to go to Essex County because the Hudson County board had not met for 10 years. After the Essex County board ruled in his favor, Bender started work again, only to be shut down again by Arezzo.
Two months ago, the state stepped in, deciding that its own inspectors will oversee the construction because of the fact that the parties involved are present and former officials. Both men said they wanted the state to be involved, and both claimed credit for having asked the state to step in first.
"I asked for their involvement by letter in November of 1999," said Arezzo. "[Bender] has just caused so [many] complications for himself. That two-family building should have been completed more than a year ago. I'm just happy that my office does not have to deal with this individual and that structure anymore." Bender said he was the one who requested the state's assistance.
He also said the move doesn't reflect well on the city.
"To have the state take that over is a slap in the face for the city," Bender said. "It is like a move of last resort. First they exhaust all other possibilities."
Bender added that he hoped to finally be able to move ahead with the renovations now. He says that he is $100,000 in the hole as a result of the delays, but he hopes to recoup those funds through a lawsuit he filed in the Hudson County Superior Court earlier in the year.
The court is expected to open the case this month.
Arezzo, for his part, said that Bender was simply ignoring the uniform code of construction - a series of state regulations that set construction standards, and that he had to take action to ensure the laws were enforced. "He was way too far out there," Arezzo said Wednesday of Bender's efforts to rehab the building. "He did not have the proper approvals and he was taking it upon himself to do things that he was not allowed to do in that building. He was the zoning officer at the time. But he is like everyone else. The law needs to be applied evenly no matter who you are."
Bender said last week that he believes that Arezzo's moves were the result of bad blood between the two. Bender said that during a portion of the time he served as zoning officer, he also served as the city's plumbing inspector, until Al Arezzo, who was his supervisor in that instance, forced him to give that up. Arezzo said that Bender was not doing a good job and had to resign, while Bender said that he voluntarily resigned because of the conflicts created by working under Arezzo half of the time and in conjunction with him the other half.
Bender claimed that the bad blood between the two officials spilled over into the way Arezzo regulated the Willow Avenue project, creating unnecessary problems and making it impossible for the rehab work to proceed.
"The way he enforces the uniform code of construction is very much pick and choose," Bender said. "If you are friendly with him you are OK. But if you do anything to make him upset, then you are in trouble."
To hear Bender tell it, Arezzo is a "manipulator" whose enforcement of the uniform code of construction is "irregular." Arezzo insists that he has simply tried to enforce the law equally for all people and that Bender is so blinded by personal animosity that he can not see that. Arezzo said that Bender is a "disgruntled [former] employee."
But Bender said, "[Arezzo] is of that old 'This is my town, so when you disrespect me you are going to pay the price' school of thought."
Bender claimed that there are a slew of instances where Arezzo has let his personal animosities cloud his judgement when it comes to enforcing the code. As evidence, he pointed to a strip of neon around the Malibu Diner at 14th and Washington streets. The strip did not need permits from the zoning board, but Arezzo gave the diner a hard time anyway, Bender said.
"He stopped them from putting it up, saying that it was a sign and needed zoning approval," Bender said. "He was just giving them a hard time because they had had his car towed from their lot nine or 11 months earlier. Finally he acknowledged that all they needed was the electrical permits, but I can not tell you what he put those people through."
Arezzo said Thursday that he had no idea what Bender was talking about.
"I never had my car towed from the Malibu lot," he said. "I drive an unmarked police car. Why would [the police] tow one of their own cars? It just does not make any sense. There is really something wrong with [Bender]."
Arezzo added, "I did shut them down once because they were renovating their kitchen without permits. They had permits to renovate everything else. But when I went in there, they were also doing the kitchen so I made them stop until they got the permitting."
When the owners of the Malibu were contacted, they declined to comment. "We don't want to get into this," said Gus Babalis, who runs the diner with his son Nick.
Bender says that he decided to make public his criticisms of the building inspector after reading about problems that a local health club was having with Arezzo in the Hoboken Reporter. Officials with Health Concepts, a yet-to-open three-story gym at the corner of 14th and Park, filed suit against Arezzo and several other city officials last month alleging that their attempts to turn a former industrial building into a gym have been held up without adequate explanation.
Bender complained Monday that knowledge of these sorts of problems has percolated up to the highest levels of city government, yet nothing is done.
"At one point I had nothing but respect for Mayor [Anthony] Russo," said the former zoning officer. "I would have done anything for him. I saw him as a real strong leader. He could have put an end to this. But he chose not to. He has just stood on the sidelines and let it happen."
The mayor shrugged off Bender's criticism.
"I am virtually never on the sidelines," he said, "but I can't get involved in a dispute between present and past employees when both sides have attorneys and are going to court. Whatever is the right thing will be decided on this."
Just about the only thing that both Bender and Arezzo agree on is the fact that they will both be happier when Bender's suit is settled.
"This has affected my whole life, and I just want to move on," Bender said.
Arezzo said, "Him taking attacks on me is nothing new. I realize that life goes on. I just wish that he would move on too."