2,000 feet. That is the distance between the old address of Orchid Beauty Salon on Westfield Avenue and its new location. A straight line. An eight-minute walk. Not far in the least.
But for owner Lena Ho and her husband Jason, the move which started in November of last year has yet to be completed and her new place at 25 West Westfield Avenue has yet to open its doors. Just to give a sense of time, the newspapers that cover the windows of the new place are dated January 1, 2016 – that is before the primaries for this year’s Presidential Election even started. They ended in June.
On one side are loyal customers and those who say they are trying to help get Orchid Beauty Salon open. On the other are residents who feel Roselle Park already has too many beauty salons & barber shops (there are 19 of them) and those who say they are enforcing the laws on the books for the benefit and safety of all. And in the middle is a family who is paying rent on a place that – for over nine months – has not brought in any income.
Lena opened Orchid Nail Salon in 2012 at 207 East Westfield Avenue, where the old Underwater World used to be located. Last year, Lena said she decided to move into where Beauty Palace used to be, right next to the now closed Park Cinema, and call it Orchid Beauty Salon because she is including hair-styling. The necessary permits were applied for and the related fees were paid. Since the business was to be for the same use – a beauty salon – there was no need to appear before the Municipal Land Use Board (MLUB) due to a streamline process called a Waiver Site Plan For Change Of Tenancy that was put in place years ago. This was supposed to save applicants time and money if the business going in was the same use as the previous business, thereby avoiding the time it took to go before the MLUB and have an application reviewed and approved – as well as the associated costs related to drawing up plans, making copies, paying for stenographers and notices sent to neighbors. Everything was going – more or less – according to schedule until April of this year when the application for 25 West Westfield Avenue hit the desk of Roselle Park’s Construction Official and Building Inspector, Jesse Atwell.
Mr. Atwell inspected the salon and notified the Ho family that, due to changes in building standard laws, vents would be required for certain stations in the salon to comply with construction codes due to the chemicals used in beauty salon-related services. The reason for this was that the previous tenant, according to both Mr. Atwell and Lena, had emptied the inside of the business completely, taking even the sinks. Mr. Atwell saw the property as a vacant storefront and, thereby, the exhaust fans had to be installed.
“It was a beauty parlor [but] everything was removed so now it became a vacant storefront with nothing in it,” said Mr. Atwell when reached by phone, “Under 2009 International Mechanical Code from the State of New Jersey, Table 403.3 – Minimum Ventilation Ratings – [a] beauty and nail salon is required to have a ventilation system with fresh air coming in.”
He went on to describe how it has to be with duct work over the tables for the nails within 12 inches of the table and there has to be a duct leading up to the main mechanical system over each table and then it has to bring fresh air back in.
This is where the Ho family is confused since, when they opened Beauty Nail Salon in Roselle Park four years ago, Underwater World did not have ventilation in place nor did Lena and Jason need to have any installed. If the law requiring ventilation changed in 2009, why were they not required to put one in place in 2012?
In the end, this is the real crux of the matter. If the previous business had left the interior of the location intact, it would, according to Mr. Atwell, have been considered a same use and Orchid Beauty Salon would have been – for lack of a better word – grandfathered in and doing business by now.
When asked outright if the previous tenant had not gutted the place and kept the fixtures, would the exhaust fans have been an issue, Mr. Atwell responded, “Nope, there wouldn’t [have] been no issue. They went from a vacant storefront with nothing in it. I mean nothing. There [were] no sinks, no chairs, no tables for the nails, no pedicure chairs or anything like that. That’s the only reason they have to apply.”
Mr. Atwell went on to clarify, “If they’re existing [use] and somebody sells it with all the fixtures in it as a beauty salon [or] nail salon, [then] no, unfortunately, they don’t have to come up to the requirements of the mechanical code. To me, I think it’s wrong but I don’t make the codes, the State of New Jersey does.”
It is after this initial inspection where the sequence of events differs between the business owner and the municipal employee.
The Ho Family had an exhaust fan system installed without submitting plans or going through a mechanical engineering firm. The Ho family claims that Mr. Atwell never put in writing what type of exhaust fan/ventilation system was required to comply with the code.
“We did install a bathroom exhaust fan,” commented Jason Ho, “However, Mr. Atwell never specified what kind of exhaust fan we needed. On the first inspection he only said we needed an exhaust fan. He did not say anything further than that nor did he put in writing what kind we needed to install.”
After about two months he finally contacted us [by] phone saying that we needed an engineer and that the engineer would know what to install.” – Jason Ho
Jason continued, “The second inspection, he said the ventilation was wrong. A few days after that, we wrote to him, complaining about his negligence in telling us specifics. After about two months he finally contacted us [by] phone saying that we needed an engineer and that the engineer would know what to install. He did not, however, tell us about what we needed.”
Mr. Atwell did confirm that he never did give specifics but he stated that he let them know they would need a mechanical engineering firm to submit plans for review and approval. The engineering firm would know the required system since they would be familiar with the 2009 Mechanical International Code New Jersey Edition. Also, if Mr. Atwell had given a recommendation as to the type of exhaust fan that was required and, in the future, if something were to go wrong with it, he and the municipality could be held responsible for having given any such recommendation.
Orchid Beauty Salon was issued a denial letter which signified that it failed inspection.
The Ho family stated that Mr. Atwell never wrote down what was needed so that they could keep a record of what to look for in order to comply to building standards.
Jason remarked that it was only after two months of their architect, their attorney, and the building landlord sending letters to Mr. Atwell that the Construction Official called them explaining that they had to hire a mechanical engineer to install the ventilation. Mr. Ho expounded, “We complied, hiring an engineer to go to the town to apply for a permit to install the ventilation to the salon. Mr. Atwell approved the permit on June 23, 2016, also denoting that plans were not required. Our engineer then went ahead to install the system in the salon.”
On July 18th, according to the Ho family’s records, Mr. Atwell came back to inspect the salon again and said it was “not right” and even asked where the plans were.
This is when Mayor Carl Hokanson was reached out to by Lena and Jason for help. Understanding that Mr. Atwell holds a UCC (Uniform Construction Code) license which gives him the authority in Roselle Park as the last word for such situations, Mayor Hokanson tried to help as best he could. He said that he got phones call almost every day from the Ho family about the entire issue.
Lena and Jason were further frustrated by not knowing why there was such a strict adherence to demanding a ventilation system that required money and time when they moved into an existing beauty salon in order to avoid spending money. Not to mention the fact that other beauty salons in Roselle Park did not have to install such systems if they moved into what was previously considered the same use. It was at this point that the Ho family threatened to take the municipality to court.
Others then got involved such as the Borough Clerk Doreen Cali and Dan Petrosky – the Chair of the Roselle Park Democratic Committee (RPDC) as well as brother of Second Ward Councilman Joseph Petrosky.
The state says I can give a variation, but if the state doesn’t recognize it, I can’t see me giving a variation on it.” – Jesse Atwell
Mr. Atwell stated he walked out of that meeting after about an hour when he determined no progress was being made.
Then came one day this month when Mr. Atwell showed up at 25 West Westfield Avenue, based on two complaints he received. The Construction Official said, “They were in there with papers all over the windows so you couldn’t see in. I knocked on the door. I looked in between the newspaper and the door frame and the owner, or who ever works there, was doing a pedicure.”
Lena said that she was doing nails for an aunt who was visiting and that she was not conducting business.
Regardless, Mr. Atwell stated, “I gave them a violation for operating a business with no C.O. When they get it done, I’ll abate it but to get slapped in the face with them working in there under cover of newspaper on the windows… and I got complaints. That’s the only reason I went there. I got two complaints that they were working, that they were operating in the store.”
It is at this point, that certain whispers, rumors, and insinuations should be addressed.
The first is that one of those who contacted the Construction Official was Fifth Ward Councilman Thomas ‘Thos’ Shipley.
“Yes I did,” confirmed Councilman Shipley, “I followed up on a complaint from a fifth ward resident and contacted the construction office.”
Stating that he was relaying a concern to the professionals who work for the borough in order for the matter to be handled appropriately, Councilman Shipley remarked that he had no detrimental motive towards any business in town. He explained, “Like everyone, I want to see businesses in Roselle Park flourish. One of my proposals prior to serving on council was to create a one-stop shopping business office staffed by a person or consultant, whichever is deemed most advantageous.”
Referring to his councilman’s website, Mr. Shipley stated that the borough should create a focused, one-stop shopping service where interested developers and businesses can meet with borough professionals to guide them through local zoning and construction laws, help locate areas in-line with their proposed businesses, and maintain an active list of available locations.
“We should not wait for business to find us,” said the councilman, “We should have cutting edge professionals who have knowledge and motivation to bring businesses to our community. Time after time I hear from people that the borough is not business-friendly. People have also told me that even the Democratic Party Chairman has been involved with intervening on behalf of businesses. I think we are better off keeping the politics and personalities out of it and handle these matter in a professional, business-friendly approach.”
Another piece of town chatter was that the mayor told the Ho family that they could open up shop as long as they did not take on any new customers and that they should not come to council meetings to comment publicly on their frustrations.
“Oh, hell no!” emphatically responded Mayor Hokanson to the allegations, “I may be dumb but I’m not stupid. Why would I say that? I’ve got enough to deal with. I got calls from Mrs. Ho every day. If I told them to do that they’d stop calling me.”
Jason Ho confirmed that the mayor never told him or his wife that they could conduct business at their new location.
The mayor did say that he offered to have Orchid Beauty Salon’s exhaust fan report reviewed by Neglia Engineering, the borough’s engineering firm, to make sure it was up to code before sending it to Mr. Atwell.
As for telling Lena not to come to a meeting, the Ho family said they were never told any such thing. The mayor said, “I don’t tell anyone what to do. If they want to come to a meeting, I’m not going to stop anyone from doing anything.”
I’m not trying to put these people out of business or anything like that, it’s just that I have to go by the required code.” – Jesse Atwell
He said, “I’m not trying to put these people out of business or anything like that, it’s just that I have to go by the required code. Like I said, the other beauty parlors that are existing, they should have to do the same thing but, again, I can’t make them. The whole problem is that they don’t have the money to afford it. I don’t know what to say but I just can’t let them open it up.”
Mr. Atwell stated that he has given mayor & council a copy of the code so the process can move forward with having the Ho family submit an exhaust fan plan from a mechanical engineer so he can review and approve it. He stated, “The code basically says it needs a mechanical exhaust system and they’re supposed to… it doesn’t say it in there but they’re supposed to go to an engineer and have an engineer design it.”
The Construction Official did add that the work in any approved plans would need to be done, “I will give them a temporary C.O. to operate the business, but if it’s not done in 30 days I will shut them down.”
Lena and Jason are still skeptical things will finally be resolved. Jason commented, “Mr. Atwell [has] given us the runaround, preventing us from having stable source of income to support our family of four for the last nine months. Three years ago, we saw extreme ease in passing the requirements needed to open a business. We thought it would be the exact same experience the second time around. But now, even when the Uniform Construction Code has not changed in those three years, even when we meet all standards and requirements, we still cannot get approved. It’s just unfair and exhausting. On a daily basis, we are under such stress that it has affected our health.”
It should be noted that even though Mr. Atwell appears to be a strong proponent of adhering to the rules of law, he is, as of August 26th, the only municipal officer who has not filed his Financial Disclosure Statement (FDS). This form is legally required to be filled out every year by municipal officials by April 1st and this is not the first year Mr. Atwell has not filled his out by the due date. Last year it took almost four months before he submitted his FDS to the state.
So there is a Construction Official who has not violated the duties of his license and is applying the laws as he sees fit and then there is a family trying to make a living not understanding why the rules changed for them since 2012 to now.
In contacting Jason Ho, he stated that even though he was notified this past Monday by the mayor that Neglia Engineering would reach out to their mechanical engineer to review the exhaust system plans before having Mr. Atwell review and, hopefully, sign off on them, no one has gotten back to them yet.
For Lena and Jason in their journey to move four blocks, it is now day 302.