Armory Drive eyesore still looms, but city readies assault

Published 1:35 pm Saturday, June 6, 2015

The rubble at the former St. Regis Paper Company building has remained since May 2014. Franklin city management is seeking a solution, even if it means paying to have the site cleared. -- Cain Madden | Tidewater News

The rubble at the former St. Regis Paper Company building has remained since May 2014. Franklin city management is seeking a solution, even if it means paying to have the site cleared. — Cain Madden | Tidewater News

The Golden Mile near College Drive isn’t looking so shiny these days, as the once dilapidated St. Regis Paper Company building has become what many residents consider far more offensive to the eye — a giant pile of rubble between Walgreens and O’Reilly Auto Parts.

When the process began in April 2014, owner David DiPaolo was trying to turn a drain on the land into new commercial development. It was the last stretch of that part of Armory Drive with a large piece of unused property, and City Manager Randy Martin and Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. President Amanda Jarratt thought it had the potential to host businesses including a restaurant, a stripmall or more.

The project didn’t get off to a good start. Early on during demolition, a water main was ruptured. Work continued and Macsons, the demo crew, completed its task. But the water continued to flow, just as the rubble remained.

It turns out, city code requires water mains to be capped off before a permit for demolition can be granted. However, in an effort to be business friendly, the city signed off on the razing of the property to occur concurrently with the water being shut down.

At the time, DiPaolo had argued that $750,000 worth of copper and other metals had been stolen from the building, and he wanted to get in and accumulate the rest. As well, the crew already had equipment on site, and ownership wanted to move fast, as well, due to thefts in the area.

David Ewell, the contractor hired to cap off the lines, never did it. The water continued to flow as the lawyers got involved and parties responsible continued to point fingers.

By October, the tearing-down phase had been completed for months, but nothing had been done toward removing the rubble or slab, and the water was still flowing. At this point, the city stepped in to cap the flowing main when a fire hydrant was installed on the site. More than 1 million gallons of water had been wasted, generating a bill of $2,846 for the business.

At the time, Martin said this was a project that everyone in the city wanted to see completed, and they were glad DiPaolo initiated it. He didn’t know it was foreshadowing things to come, but in October, Martin said that he hoped this chapter didn’t have a long-term effect on the process.

In January, the city capped the other two water mains going onto the property, which the crews never got around to doing.

During the subsequent months, every time members of City Council, such as Benny Burgess, drove by the property, they couldn’t turn their eyes away from the rubble. Asking Martin in March what could be done to get this project onto the next phase, the city manager said they were looking at city code, analyzing the costs and all other details associated with moving forward.

“I hope you do it sooner rather than later,” Burgess said. “It is a huge eyesore.”

In March, the Office of Community Development sent out a trash and debris notice to DiPaolo, said Director Donald Goodwin. The notice, which would have given the owner 45 days to clean the site, was never picked up.

The next plan, initiated in April and brought up by council in May, was to go after 1101 Armory Drive LLC’s registered agent, whose job is to correspond on behalf of the company. If agents of the LLC, which officially owns the property, do not move forward, then the city would act to remove the debris.

“Is there a backup plan if the notice never reaches someone?” asked Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn.

A lawyer in Franklin was supposedly that agent, and City Attorney Taylor Williams said he didn’t think reaching that person would be a problem. He added that if another step is required the city could hire someone, such as a sheriff’s deputy, to serve the notice.

“Once notification is made that person will have the opportunity to correct the situation,” Williams said. “If the deadline passes, the city will take care of it.”

When Burgess asked how long it would take for the city to jump to Plan B, Martin said that as far as he was concerned, the process was already past the waiting limit.

“When people are traveling through town — potential businesses — they see that debris,” Johnson-Ashburn mentioned, adding that it doesn’t reflect well on the town.

Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham asked, “This isn’t one of those situations where we will let them do just a little, and they can get by as more time passes?”

“No sir,” Goodwin replied. “They will have ‘X’ amount of time to clean it up — not starting it.”

The process is further complicated by bills and past due taxes, said Treasurer Dinah Babb. In taxes alone, an approximate figure of $45,000 is owed on the property.

Originally, she was told that DiPaolo had the money and would pay. But after months of non-communication, she turned it over to a tax attorney as it became eligible for a tax sale. The property is projected to go up for a tax sale in the fall, Babb said.

If the city ends up having to pay to complete the demolition process, Babb said they could put a lien on the property and collect that money at the sale.

It turns out, DiPaolo had listed himself as the registered agent for the corporation, Goodwin said. The same David DiPaolo who never picked up the warning.

The final nuisance notice was sent out on May 13, and an attempt at delivery was made on May 15 in Norfolk. Williams said he finds it troubling that nothing has been done by the U.S. Postal Service since the 15th, according to the tracking information.

“Until it is served, or the post office returns the certified letter to us, we can’t do anything,” Williams said.

Once the certified letter does return, the attorney said the city would weigh its options. But Williams did believe that they could move forward with removing the eyesore at that point.

If they get the letter before DiPaolo acts, Goodwin said he would start collecting bids to complete the demolition process. He could not disclose how much this would cost the city because it could hurt the city’s bargaining power. Goodwin did add that it wouldn’t be cheap.

DiPaolo could not be reached for comment.