KINGSTON — Borough officials have promised to begin cleanup of a property at 549 N. Gates Ave. allegedly torched by one of its owners in October.
Municipal Administrator Paul Keating said the borough is very aware of the property, which contains a fire-damaged home, a swimming pool and other debris.
“We will be sending borough staff out to the house this week to drain the pool liner filled with standing water,” Keating said Thursday afternoon. “Our further goal is to raze the house and clean the property, but we need to work through the proper channels.”
One of the owners, Helen Sterner, has been charged with arson in the Oct. 20 fire.
Her husband, Jim Sterner, also an owner, no longer lives at the house. According to Keating, Jim Sterner has indicated he has no intention of cleaning up the property.
George Kochis, who lives at 555 N. Gates Ave., next door to the fire-damaged property, said the damaged property presents a health hazard, has the potential to devalue neighborhood properties and affects the enjoyment of his property.
Kochis said he lived next door to the couple for years and deemed them “good people.”
“I don’t know why Helen did what she did,” he said. “I saw her the day it happened and she was concerned in getting her grass cut.”
In addition to over $6,000 owed to Luzerne County for property taxes, the property also have multiple liens against it, reflecting the owners’ failure to pay personal and federal income tax.
“In razing the building, we will incur some financial liability,” Keating said. “We’ll get paid eventually, but I don’t know when.”
Still, Keating said the borough will move forward with razing the structure and cleaning the property for the safety of its residents.
“By Monday’s night’s work session, I intend to have an estimate as to how much demolishing the building will cost,” he said.
Another hurdle the borough faces is that because the building was destroyed by arson, the borough will not receive a fire insurance escrow amount.
“Usually, we hold money in escrow to motivate such residents to bring properties to code after a fire,” he said. “But in this case, there is no such escrow.”
Neighbors said not only are they attempting to encourage the borough to clean up the property, they are also trying to come to terms with a neighbor who allegedly set fire to her own home and put them all at risk.
“I went over to the jail to see (Helen Sterner),” said Carol Chmiel, who lies at 543 N. Gates Ave. “Of course, I did. We’ve been friends for many years.”
Chmiel said Sterner didn’t give her any reason why she allegedly set her own house on fire with gasoline purchased from a local gas station.
“She said she was hoping that Jim would divorce her,” she said. “I told her I missed her.”
Sally Barnes, who lives across the street and attended the borough’s council meeting earlier this month to request cleanup of the property, said she hopes the borough will make it a priority.
Keating provided a copy of a letter the borough’s code enforcement officer, Joe Marut, sent to the Sterners days after the fire, directing them to clean up the property.
He said the borough’s solicitor, Harry Mattern, has provided further notice to the Sterners and the borough will now move forward to not only drain standing water on the property, but demolish the building and clean up its grounds.
Kochis said he hopes for a more equitable solution.
“Jim (Sterner) should step up and do the right thing and be a real neighbor,” he said.
According to Barnes, firefighters began pumping water out of the Sterners’ pool liner Thursday evening.