Property battles over
Spirtas exits picture, Hilkers buy land
By Scott Bellile
After a decade of legal battles over the blighted property where Simmons Juvenile Products once stood, a timeline has been set for cleaning up the land at last.
Eric Spirtas, who has been involved in three lawsuits with the city of New London since 2008, sold the remainder of his 22-acre property to downtown New London business Hilker Warehousing on Nov. 1.
Hilker Warehousing owners Tom and Lori Hilker plan to have the property clean within one year, according to a timeline they provided to the city of New London last week.
The Hilkers will fix the factory buildings that were left over from the partial demolition of Simmons and convert them into dry warehousing.
They will not do any new construction. Tom Hilker and son Nick Hilker told the Press Star it will be cheaper to repair the existing structures than to replace them.
In Tom Hilker’s opinion, the old Simmons factory structures are in better shape than many believe. Therefore he expects to be conducting business over there by January 2018.
Hilker Warehousing will continue to be headquartered at 405 W. Wolf River Ave., the building they bought after Saputo Cheese’s 2014 closure. The business opened Dec. 6, 2015, and offers cold storage for industries.
The expansion to a second building is necessary because Nick Hilker said their family business is running out of space in the old cheese factory. Operating out of two locations will more than double their warehouse capacity.
“There’s actually more usable space over there [at the former Simmons site] than there is here,” Nick Hilker said at the headquarters. “Altogether over there there’s about 150,000 square feet. In this property, usable space, we’re sitting at about 100 [thousand square feet].”
Located on the east side of New London, the site runs along East Cook Street, Fremont Street and East Beacon Avenue. It is also next door to Dennis R. Hilker Trucking, Inc., a separate business run by Tom Hilker’s father.
The former Simmons property carried an address of 613 E. Beacon Ave. However, the Hilkers requested a new address for their business, which is 406 Mill St.
Because Hilker Warehousing bought the property that was the subject of the city of New London’s lawsuit against Spirtas, legally the Hilkers become substituted as the defendants in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed earlier this year to get Spirtas to clean up his private property, which the city declared a public nuisance.
Spirtas’s attorney, Mark J. Tyczkowski, did not return a request for his side of the story before press time.
Background on lawsuit
The city of New London filed the lawsuit against Spirtas on Feb. 28.
In the petition, New London Building Inspector Paul Hanlon stated that Spirtas’s buildings are public nuisances because they “have deteriorated to the extent that windows and doors and the plumbing and heating fixtures in the building have been either damaged, destroyed or removed so that the building offends the aesthetic character of the immediate neighborhood and produces blight in the neighborhood.”
Tyczkowski denied these allegations in his answer and affirmative defenses filed on April 11.
Tyczkowski further denied that Spirtas has failed to remedy the property’s condition, that Hanlon served Spirtas a Notification of Public Nuisance and that Hanlon posted the notice on Spirtas’s property.
A memo from Hanlon dated July 5 laid out arguments for why the property is a public nuisance. Among them:
• Too many weeds and too much brush surround the buildings.
• Some doorways and windows are uncovered. Trespassers could easily enter the building. Glass could fall from the windows onto the ground.
• A damaged wall on Building 34 requires repairs because it is not structurally sound. The top of the south wall also appears to be unsupported.
• Large piles of concrete rubble lie on the east side of the building.
• Electrical wiring, plumbing, piping and heating were all removed.
Simmons closed in June 2005. According to the July 23, 2004 New London Press Star, the wood furniture company decided to outsource to countries where labor is cheaper. New London’s factory consequently laid off 261 workers.
The building was 114 years old at the time of Simmons’ closure.
Spirtas did not comply with a 120-day notice by the city to repair his building before Oct. 29. So nine days later on Nov. 7, Outagamie County Judge Gregory Gill Jr. authorized the city to issue a raze order.
Had Spirtas kept his property rather than sold to the Hilkers, the city would have proceeded with the raze order. The city would have hired demolition crews to knock down the buildings at the taxpayers’ expense until Spirtas reimbursed the city, said Earl Luaders, attorney for the city of New London.
As the new property owners, the Hilkers will pay for and perform all work necessary to bring the property up to code. In return, Luaders said the city will not enforce the raze order.
“We’re more than willing to work with them and give them the time they requested in their timeline to remediate the property,” Luaders said of the Hilkers.
“They’re local and we have a good relationship with them and they’re trustworthy,” Luaders said, adding the goal of a clean property is a “collaborative effort” between the Hilkers and the city.
According to the timeline for property remediation that Lori Hilker provided the city of New London:
• Weeds are being cleaned up now and will continue to be “until it’s complete.”
• Broken windows and doors as well as a missing wall will all be replaced by Jan. 1, 2018.
• Large-diameter piping on the roof will be taken care of by May or June 2018.
• Large piles of concrete rubble will disappear within 12 months at the latest.
Tom and Nick Hilker said they have already put in long weekends at the site cleaning it up.
No health hazards, DNR says
Nick Hilker said his family commissioned a private environmental study of the property to make sure there are no health hazards.
He showed the Press Star a certificate in which the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources stated no further remediation is needed.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice in 2014 also issued the city a clearance letter stating that asbestos contamination had been cleaned up “to the DNR’s satisfaction.”
The Hilkers said they were aware that the property was free of health hazards before doing their study, but they were aware of neighbors’ concerns and so they wanted a second inspection just to be sure.
Beacon Avenue resident Julie Blohm has been a vocal critic of the conditions at the Spirtas property. She has alleged that living next to the property has put neighborhood residents’ health at risk for the last nine years.
When she has brought up her concerns at city government meetings, city officials have stuck to the 2014 findings that the property is environmentally clean.
In an April letter to the New London Board of Public Works, Blohm stated that she fears that the soil could be contaminated and that a pile of cement chunks could be kicking asbestos-filled dust into the air when they are drilled. She said her doctor diagnosed her with pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lung tissue that researchers say may be triggered by asbestos exposure.
At the Oct. 10 city council meeting, Blohm said she also believes the property is polluting the abutting Wolf River.
“There’s ponds of contaminated water that has oil slicks on top of that property and it’s going right into the river and you can see that if you’re out on your boat and you go along the shore,” Blohm said.
“I’ve been there and I have not noticed it,” New London Mayor Gary Henke replied. “In fact it would run right past my house and it would also stain the bottom of my boat if it were coming down that way. I haven’t seen any.”
Outstanding expenses recovered
Trenten Woelfel, acting treasurer for Outagamie County, said delinquent taxes and special assessments that Spirtas owed on the property were paid off last week following the closure of the sale.
The taxes and special assessments totaled $104,784.96. There was an additional $67,125.60 accrued in interest.
Woelfel did not know offhand the breakdown of how that money will be split between Outagamie County and the city of New London.
He noted that Spirtas owed an additional $82,000 in special assessments when the city razed structures on his property in 2010.
Woelfel said Spirtas was able to pay $45,000 of that amount. The city and county ate the rest of that cost.
Woelfel said between the Beacon Avenue Cottages affordable housing townhouses that were built this year on three parcels previously owned by Spirtas, and the Hilkers’ warehousing plans for the remainder of the land, the future looks better for the property.
“It’s pretty amazing what you can do with the right intentions,” Woelfel said. “[I hope Hilker Warehousing] gets their hands on that and they can build it up and get it back to working condition and help the community.”
Luaders said the city is “happy” to work with the Hilker family to restore the former Simmons property.
“The city’s relieved and hopeful that because we now have a more responsible corporate citizen owning the property, hopefully that will yield results in terms of cleanup so that the property will be more aesthetically pleasing for the neighbors in that area because they’ve had to endure a long time of looking at rubble, rundown buildings and weeds.”
According to the court calendar, a Dec. 11 telephone conference between the city and Spirtas’s defense remains scheduled. The defendant has not yet been changed to Hilker Warehousing.
Timeline of conflicts
The history of the battles between the city of New London and Eric Spirtas goes back nearly a decade.
E.J. Spirtas New London, LLC , based in Creve Coeur, Missouri, acquired the property on Sept. 30, 2005, from SJP Group.
In the years that followed, the factory remained vacant and the city was unhappy with its aesthetic appearance. Spirtas filed a restraining order against the city in April 2008 to stop a raze order.
Outagamie County Judge Michael Gage dismissed the case that October that year and allowed New London to continue with the raze order.
The city gave Spirtas until Aug. 31, 2009 to raze his buildings. He did not do it.
In September 2009, Spirtas appeared before the New London Finance and Personnel Committee and apologized for his “inability to move forward on the demolition/cleanup of his property” due to financial troubles, according to meeting minutes.
He owed roughly $45,000 in delinquent taxes, according to a news article in the County Post East, as partially torn down buildings stood on a 4-acre parcel along the north side of Beacon Avenue.
In October 2009, a judge ruled in favor of a city-imposed raze order. The city was given authorization to demolish the building. The city council approved a $165,940 bid on Dec. 8, 2009, according to minutes.
With the authority granted by the judge, the city hired a contractor to perform demolitions of some of the structures.
In 2010, the city agreed to work with First State Bank to purchase the 25-acre property if it were to go into foreclosure and a private investor would not outbid the bank at an auction.
“Some of the positive aspects of the purchase would give us control of the metal buildings for City use; gain control of the parking lots, gain control of the type of future use for the property, and cease taxes from accruing,” City Clerk Susan Tennie stated in the April 20, 2010 city council minutes.
At a city council meeting one month later, it was suggested that if the city purchased the land, it could use the existing buildings for cold storage and construct a new city garage there. (The garage would end up being constructed in 2016 on Wolf River Avenue.) A large parcel could also be sold to gain back some of the estimated $455,000 that the city would spend to buy and clean off the property.
Spirtas ended up satisfying his mortgage and prevented his property from going into foreclosure. The city did not acquire it.
The County Post East reported in October 2010 that Spirtas claimed the city caused nearly $650,000 worth of damage to his property during the forced demolition. He alleged that items were stolen from the site and the fill got contaminated.
In June 2011, Spirtas sued the city and six other parties, including Hurley-based contractor Superior Excavation, alleging that asbestos violations took place during the city’s work.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice received a referral from the Wisconsin DNR requesting that the city of New London and Superior Excavation be charged with a series of civil asbestos violations that occurred at Spirtas’s property.
The DOJ decided to hold off on the complaint and give the city more time to clean up the asbestos contamination there.
In June 2014, the DOJ and the DNR agreed that the city adequately cleared the site of all asbestos contamination and the DOJ would not issue civil asbestos violations against the city.
Then in October 2014, Outagamie County acquired three parcels on the north side of Beacon Avenue through tax foreclosure because Spirtas failed to pay delinquent property taxes.
The county would eventually sell the parcels to Commonwealth Development for $60,000 total. The company built the Beacon Avenue Cottages townhouses this year.
Of note, in 2015 Manitowoc’s city council voted to approve a raze order against Spirtas’s vacant factory building because it did not receive a clear demolition plan from him. He had owned there since 2006. The city took ownership of the building in 2016 and demolished it this past summer.
In 2015, Judge Vincent Biskupic ruled in favor of the city of New London in regards to Spirtas’s claims that the city caused damage to his property. Biskupic ruled against the city on the negligence portion related to the contamination at the site.
Spirtas’s attorney offered to give the property to the city last year if the city signed a donation agreement and paid Spirtas $100,000. The city declined the offer.
The New London City Council approved pursuing a raze order in November 2016. One Dec. 21, 2016, Spirtas’s 2011 lawsuit regarding the city’s handling of the forced demolition was dismissed without costs to either party.
The city’s 30 days’ notice to Spirtas ordering him to repair or remove the public nuisance buildings was published on Jan. 19, 2017. After Spirtas did not comply, the city sued Spirtas on Feb. 28, as detailed earlier in this story.