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Tenants Displaced in Massive N.J. Fire Sue Developer

HACKENSACK, N.J. (CN) - Tenants displaced from last week's massive residential apartment fire along the Hudson River in Edgewater, N.J., claim in court that the lack of sprinklers in attics of their complex and use of lightweight wood construction "may have accelerated the spread of the fire."

The class action against Avalon Bay Communities in Bergen County Superior Court comes just days after a Jan. 21 fire burned to the ground the 408-unit luxury housing complex known as Avalon Bay at Edgewater, constructed in 2002.

Citing New York Times coverage of the fire, the residents say maintenance workers sparked the fire while using a blowtorch in the basement of the complex to fix a plumbing issue.

The fire displaced more than 1,000 people, half of them permanently, and completely destroyed 230 units, according to the complaint.

Both of the class action's named plaintiffs, Robert Loposky and Richard Kemp, say all of his personal belongings they kept in their apartments, including Loposky's dogs, were lost in the fire.

The fire started at around 4:30 in the afternoon and continued overnight, drawing response from more than 35 different local fire departments in New York and New Jersey, including the FDNY, according to the complaint.

Though no person died in or because of the fire, two residents and two firefighters were reportedly treated for minor injuries, and others like Loposky lost pets, the complaint states.

The residents blame Avalon for ignoring that "the risk was increased when using lightweight wood construction and/or in allowing a blowtorch to be used in close proximity to flammable materials."

While local and state authorities have noted that the building was up to code, the class quotes Edgewater's Fire Chief Tom Jacobson as saying in a press conference after the fire: "If [the building] was made out of concrete and cinder block, we wouldn't have this sort of problem."

The class also faults Avalon for initially downplaying the fire. "At approximately 6:25 p.m., two hours after the fire was first reported, a mass email was sent to tenants of the Avalon advising them that there was a 'minor fire' at the complex," the comlaint states.

This description was false since "this was, in fact, a devastating fire that, at its peak, emitted smoke that was visible from across the Hudson River in Manhattan," the complaint states.

The class faults Avalon's developers for moving ahead with the project after settling lawsuits associated with a different fire at the same location 15 years earlier. New York Times reporting on that earlier incident quotes fire officials as calling it "the worst blaze they had seen in decades," according to the complaint.

Avalon used lightweight wood construction that is "faster to build with, but also more flammable," the class says.

"It has also been reported that the Avalon apartments did not have sprinklers in the attics or concealed spaces," possibly accelerating the spread of the fire, according to the 21-page complaint.

Other Avalon properties have also allegedly experienced safety issues. In 2012, a fire broke out at the company's Avalon Garden City complex in Garden City, N.Y., while it was still under construction, the complaint says.

Maryland-based Avalon Bay has ownership interests in 274 apartment communities across the country and reported $1.4 billion in revenue for 2013, the class notes.

Edgewater, thrust into the regional spotlight on account of the Avalon fire, is a small borough just south of the George Washington Bridge across from Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The borough and the surrounding area have seen a huge construction boom the last 20 years, with Edgewater more than doubling in size, going from about 5,000 residents in 1990 to just over 12,000 in 2010.

Pressed for an interview, AvalonBay said it had "no comment at this time."

The company's chief construction officer, Michael Feigin, said in a statement last week after the fire, however that the wood-frame construction used on the project is "a standard, common, and safe construction method for multifamily housing used throughout the United States."

"The community was built in accordance with the fire and safety codes applicable at the time," Feigin said.

NJ Advance Media has also reported that AvalonBay has pro-rated all of January leases of its Edgewater tenants, returned security deposits to permanently displaced tenants and offered $1,000 to help tenants find short-term accommodations.

Multiple media sources have additionally reported that Avalon Bay did require that tenants obtain renter's insurance as a condition of the lease.

Seeking damages for negligence and nuisance, the class is represented by Bruce Greenberg with Lite DePalma & Greenberg of Newark.

Greenberg told the Newark Star Ledger that "at this point we don't have a specific amount in damages, but that will come out as the case proceeds."

Editor's Note: All images included in the complaint.

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