Botched Flamingo Motel demolition could cost Atwater nearly $100,000 to clean up

The remains of the Flamingo Motel at 6893 Waterloo Road in Atwater. Natalie Wolford/The Portager

The old Flamingo Motel is gone, but the wreckage could cost Atwater Township almost $100,000 after officials authorized the demolition without following environmental rules.

The motel, a crumbling icon of another era, had most recently been rented out as apartments but was condemned for demolition in March 2021 by township trustees. It had not operated as a motel for decades and owner Philip Norman was the only person living in it.

Only July 8, a local contractor, Jeremiah Johnson of Fox Contracting, tore down the building and quickly hauled off much of the rubble, dumping debris in his vacant lot at 5185 Eberly Road in Randolph.

But for reasons now the subject of frustration, the demolition did not follow proper procedures, and an early estimate of the cleanup cost suggests the township may be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars, plus possible fines.

Relying on township zoning codes that listed the property as residential, the trustees had not advertised the demolition project as “commercial,” said Atwater Trustee John Kovacich during the July 26 board of trustees meeting. If they had, the trustees would have had to apply for a permit from the county building department. That would have alerted the EPA to test for asbestos, a task that had to be completed before any demo work began.

In an interview, Johnson said he never would have bid on the demolition project if he had known it was a commercial job. He said he is not licensed to do such work.

Because the structure had at one point been used as a commercial enterprise, the EPA should have been involved from the very beginning, said Sam Rubens, Air Quality Administrator for the Akron Regional Air Quality Management District, which works with the Ohio EPA.

“Anything that’s ever been used as a commercial facility is deemed commercial forever,” he said.

Johnson also said Kovacich urged him to complete the job in a day, apparently capitalizing on the arrest of Norman on an unrelated warrant for aggravated menacing charges. (A complaint in Portage County Municipal court alleges Norman threatened to burn down someone’s house and kill their family.)

That prompted Johnson to haul the debris to his Eberly Road property. From there, he said he planned to take it in stages to a Minerva landfill.

Johnson said he asked Kovacich on multiple occasions if the paperwork was in order and was reassured each time.

Kovacich acknowledged during the trustees meeting that “the standards I adhered to to take it down were not the right standards.” 

“I think it may be a case where a lot of people dropped a lot of balls all at once and it might not point to any one specific person who should have known, or should have looked into it, or should have considered it,” said Brett Bencze, an attorney with the Portage County Prosecutor’s Office who advises townships. “I think maybe between the contractor, the township, the owner, our office… at some point maybe somebody should have asked the questions.”

Natalie Wolford/The Portager

Atwater trustees are now scrambling to find a better quote than the one for $92,800 that Hepa Environmental Services in Rootstown offered for cleaning up both messes in a way that would satisfy the EPA. That means removing all the debris down to “clean dirt,” Rubens said.

No one knows how much the EPA fines may amount to, or if they will be waived altogether, Kovacich said at the meeting.

Rubens said he spoke with a trustee who said they used to work in asbestos, “so they should have known, and also the contractor they hired should have known if there was a question about asbestos as well.”

Rubens did not say which trustee he spoke with. When asked, trustees Charlie Harris and Thora Green said they never worked in asbestos. Kovacich declined to comment.

Johnson said he first learned about the possible asbestos issue when the EPA showed up on July 14. Rubens said Randolph Trustee John Lampe placed the call. Lampe, in turn, said he was alerted by an anonymous tip from an Atwater resident. 

Realizing the demolition had involved a commercial structure, the EPA issued an immediate cease and desist order.

Complicating matters is Kovacich’s assertion that some of the debris at the Eberly Road site was not from the Flamingo Motel demolition. Since what rubble came from where cannot be determined, Atwater trustees are bound to shoulder the entire cleanup cost, he said. 

Lampe said the Portage County Health District issued the cease and desist order on July 11. He said EPA staff went to both sites at some point that week, ordered Fox to unload scrap metal he was loading onto a truck, and labeled both sites as contaminated.

Because the EPA had not been able to test for asbestos before work began, everything at both sites is considered contaminated, Johnson said. Trustees now have to hire a licensed commercial contractor to haul the debris from both sites to a special hazmat landfill. The closest one is in Warren, Kovacich said.

The Atwater trustees expressed their frustration about the mistake, which may cost the township money that could have been spent on something more useful.

“It’s not like one week we decided to tear it down and the next week it was on the ground,” Harris said. “This has been a two-year process. You’d think this thing would come to light a little sooner than after this thing was on the ground.”

Trustees directed Fiscal Officer Linda Allen to find out if the township’s insurance company may help with expenses.

Johnson said he billed the township $10,600 for work he did, which was 80% of his contracted rate since the job was halted before he could finish.

But the job cost him, too: Pointing to two fuel tanks and other pipes visible on the Eberly Road property, Lampe said Randolph trustees are issuing Johnson with a zoning violation for running a business out of a residential area.

Meanwhile, trustees are doing their best to move forward.

“At this point we’re trying to follow all the guidelines,” Green said. “Everything we did, we did what we thought was the correct way to be done, and now we’re just following what needs to be done next.”

Lampe also wants the debris gone — and expects Atwater to pay.

“I want it cleaned up and out of our residential area. It’s not a landfill,” he said.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.

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