No permit was issued to demolish the Flamingo Motel, county says

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

The contractor who demolished the Flamingo Motel in Atwater never pulled a permit to do so from the Portage County Building Department, a required step that would have triggered testing for asbestos.

As a result of this oversight, and the failure of township trustees to verify the procedures were followed, Atwater is now on the hook for an EPA-sanctioned cleanup that could cost taxpayers nearly $100,000.

“No matter who hires the person, that is the person that is required to obtain the permit from my office,” said Portage County Building Director Randall Roberts. “The contractor who did the work would have been required to obtain the permits, not the township.”

Atwater trustees hired Jeremiah Johnson of Fox Contracting in Randolph to demolish the old Flamingo Motel at 6893 Waterloo Road on July 8. At the trustees’ request, the structure was condemned and slated to be torn down last year.

Johnson said Atwater Trustee John Kovacich and Portage County Assistant Prosecutor Brett Bencze — both of whom were on site the morning of the demolition — told him repeatedly that all the necessary paperwork was in order.

Bencze said he recalls telling Kovacich the property had been properly condemned and the township was cleared to proceed with the demolition process. He said he does not recall if Johnson was within earshot.

“I don’t think I ever mentioned a permit to [Johnson] or to Kovacich, at least that day,” Bencze said in an interview. “In this particular case I can’t say I ever considered it would be an issue.”

Bencze only realized permits were an issue when the Portage County Health District and The Portager started asking questions in late July. Prior to that, he said he had assumed the contractor would have pulled the proper permits.

Roberts said it wouldn’t have mattered what Kovacich or Bencze said about permits, or the lack of them: Johnson, an experienced contractor, should have known better. 

“The contractor should have come to my office and said, ‘I need to have a permit to demo this building,’ even if he didn’t know the details,” Roberts said. “At that point we would have shared with him all the prerequisites in writing. It’s a document. We would have handed him that, and said, ‘You go take care of these things, and when you’re done, bring the evidence of these things being completed, in writing, and with those things in writing, we will issue you the permit to demo.’”

Usually the building’s owner verifies proper permits are in place, but in this case the owner of the Flamingo Motel was facing arrest on unrelated charges (he was in jail when the building came down). The responsibility, therefore, would have fallen on the township trustees, Roberts said.

Kovacich has repeatedly declined comment on matters related to the Flamingo demolition, and Bencze acknowledged certain questions were not asked. 

The two other Atwater Township trustees expressed frustration about the debacle and the $92,800 quote they received from a local contractor to carry out the EPA-certified cleanup.

Had Johnson followed proper procedure, the county building department would have realized that even though the property was zoned residential, it had been used for commercial purposes and was subject to extensive standards that involved automatic EPA notification.

“Somewhere that process line got broken,” Roberts said.

In an interview, Johnson said he has done commercial site work in Medina, Trumbull, Geauga, and Tuscarawas counties, and in each case the developer pulled the necessary permits. Roberts said that is usual practice, but Johnson would have likely needed a permit to do demo work in those counties and certainly would have needed one in Portage County.

Fox Contracting is not registered in Portage County and wouldn’t have needed to be unless Johnson attempted to pull a permit, Roberts said. The building department does have Viking Construction, a company associated with Fox and referred to on its web page, registered as of last year, but no permits were ever requested. Johnson is listed as Viking’s owner.

Johnson said he is waiting for Atwater trustees to go public with quotes they are obtaining for cleaning up the potentially toxic debris at both sites: that of the former Flamingo Motel and also at 5185 Eberly Road in Randolph Township, Johnson’s property where he dumped some of the debris.

Roberts stated his intent to issue Johnson an adjudication order “identifying the errors of his ways.” The contractor will face a $675 fine (triple the cost of the permit he should have pulled), and there may be others by the EPA, Randolph Township and the county health department.

Randolph’s zoning inspector has already sent Johnson a letter informing him that he may not operate a business in a residential area, Randolph Trustee John Lampe said. Unless Johnson heeds the letter, the Portage County prosecutor will take over.

“It ain’t the first time I got screwed,” Johnson said.

The EPA wants both sites cleaned as soon as possible, but that might take some time. Ohio EPA Public Information Officer Anthony Chenault said the state agency is conducting an investigation through the Akron Regional Air Quality Management District, the Ohio EPA’s agent in Portage County.

Akron Public Health Department Supervisor Julie Brown said she is waiting for a notification to appear in the state’s asbestos database, which will happen as soon as Atwater trustees choose a cleanup contractor. The notification will include the dates the cleanup will occur.

EPA officials will be onsite to ensure proper procedures are being followed by a licensed contractor. That contractor would have to haul all materials to a hazardous materials landfill. The closest is in Warren, Brown said.

Lampe, for his part, wants the mess on Eberly Road cleaned up.

“Hopefully they find someone reputable to do it,” he said.

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