By KIM MAIALETTI
The Home Port Alliance is violating an order to halt construction on a visitors center and Waterfront pier where the battleship USS New Jersey will be docked.
The alliance never secured the required building permits for the project, prompting the Camden Code Enforcement Bureau to issue a stop-work order. Documents show the bureau issued the order July 24.
On Wednesday, it issued a second order, fining the nonprofit alliance $1,000 a week for each week it continues to work without permits. The fines are retroactive to July 24.
"The reason we're here is to make sure everything is put in to code," said Robert Scouler, city construction official. "If there's an accident, even if somebody trips and sprains their ankle, the first thing a slip and fall lawyer will say is `I want to see the construction documents.' When they find out there aren't any, there's a big problem. It creates a liability problem for a lot of people."
The permit problem touched off a firestorm of finger- pointing Thursday, with the co-chairmen of the alliance and the chairman of its construction committee saying they were unaware of the issue.
"I don't know anything about a stop-work order," said Joseph Balzano, chairman of the construction committee overseeing the $20 million project. "There's a lot of construction going on. I think the project is moving faster than the paperwork."
State Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, and Camden County Surrogate Patricia Jones are co-chairmen of the alliance, which is overseeing the massive project to convert the Navy's most-decorated battleship into a floating museum.
"There's a what?" exclaimed Jones when a reporter told her of the stop-work order. "I think it's a misunderstanding."
Matheussen also called it a misunderstanding.
"My concern is we do everything in accordance with the law and get everything done properly," Matheussen said. "We are going to cooperate with the city of Camden."
Jones and Matheussen referred specific questions to Hill International, the consulting firm hired to manage the construction project.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you anything about it," said Michael Griffin, the company's senior president. "We are working with the directors of the Home Port Alliance and the board to push the project. They said, `Go ahead and get this done.'"
According to a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the state is responsible for approving the plans. The city has jurisdiction over the permits.
The city is withholding a permit for the pier construction because an application fee of close to $200,000 has not been paid, Scouler said. Meanwhile, the state has not approved construction plans for the visitors center, said spokesman E.J. Miranda. Therefore, a building permit has not even been issued.
Nonetheless, construction of the building is well under way, said Thomas Seigenthaler, executive director of the alliance. Seigenthaler said the project's engineers are responsible for securing the permits. When he received the stop-work order, Seigenthaler said, he asked the engineers to address it and was assured the issue was resolved. He also said he told the construction committee about the problem, contrary to what Balzano said.
"There's no intent not to pay permit fees or not to get permits," Seigenthaler said. "I hate to sound ditzy. I really thought we had this whole thing under control."
Seigenthaler said he is in the process of securing the permits and scheduling a meeting with Scouler, but he will not stop work.
"I'm not the guy who should call the work to a stop," Seigenthaler said. "The intent is to get the job done."
He said he will ask the construction committee for direction.
It's unclear whether the snafu will further delay the opening of the 887-foot-long battleship, which is scheduled to be moved to its new home on Sept. 3. An opening date has not been set. The alliance originally hoped for a Labor Day weekend opening, but Tropical Storm Barry delayed a barge carrying four 110-foot steel pilings for the ship's anchorage system.
The highly decorated, 59-year-old battleship has fought in three major wars - World War II, Korea and Vietnam - since its launching in 1942 from the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. It was decommissioned in 1991.
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