Demolition begins at old sanitarium on Hilltop

FOR THE STAR-LEDGER Some vacant Essex County buildings that have become a magnet for late-night parties and a headache for North Caldwell residents will be torn down in the next two months, county officials said last night.

The buildings, including an empty tuberculosis sanitarium on the county's Hilltop property, have been the focus of complaints in recent weeks, sparking additional police patrols and resulting in dozens of trespassing arrests, North Caldwell Police Chief Joseph Clark said.

Freeholder Joseph Scarpelli hosted a meeting last night in the North Caldwell council chambers to update residents on what steps are being taken to resolve the problem.

"I have instructed the (Essex County) Improvement Authority today to begin with the timely demolition of the four existing buildings," said William Abele, chief of staff to County Executive James Treffinger. "Demolition has already begun on one of the buildings and the others should be gone within six to eight weeks."

In addition, the ECIA, which owns the property, will begin clearing and repairing access roads to give police and sheriff's patrols easier entry, Abele noted.

County and local police have extended patrols into the early morning hours, with county police conducting "four to six sweeps" of the grounds each day, he added.

The empty buildings became a near tourist attraction for hundreds of teens and young adults across the state after being mentioned on an Internet site as a party haven, Clark said.

The influx of revelers and curiosity seekers has jammed local streets, destroyed the quiet ambiance of surrounding neighborhoods and stretched the 17-member North Caldwell Police Department to its limits, Mayor James Matarazzo said.

"We would just like a normal, quiet neighborhood," said Tracy Flanagan of Hill Street. "Our neighborhood is anything but that. We find alcohol bottles, vomit and broken glass on our property. Just imagine living like this, you'd be frustrated, too."

The police also have been hampered in their efforts to clear the area by both the poor access roads and security gates.

Clark said police officers are reluctant to drive into the Hilltop area because their cars are sometimes locked in by youths who pull the security chain across the road and affix their own locks. Police vehicles also have been damaged trying to negotiate the poorly maintained roads, Abele said.

"We're going to keep patrols in the area until the buildings are all down," Clark said. "But sometimes these people stay up there for three or four hours at a time."

If caught, violators are issued trespass summonses that carry $150 fines, Clark said. But catching them is often a problem. The Web site not only gives directions to the site, but tells how to avoid the police patrols.

Abele said the Essex County Prosecutor's Office has been asked to review the Web site and determine if there are any criminal violations. "It's a long shot," he said. "But if there is a violation, we could move to shut this Web site down."

Also, Councilman David Paris said North Caldwell's municipal prosecutor will be asked to seek maximum trespass penalties to discourage violators.