2012-07-11 / Columns

Spooky old snuff mill may soon ring with kids’ laughter

CODA
GREG BEAN

After more than a decade of wrangling and angst, it looks like the old and decrepit Helme Snuff Mill in Helmetta will finally be redeveloped with 200 non-age restricted housing units. You have to wonder how they’re going to market it, since “snuff mill” sounds more like the location of a Freddy Krueger movie than an upscale condominium complex, but I’m sure they’ll think of something.

The Helmetta Planning Board’s vote last week to approve the project came after years of arguments and lawsuits between Helmetta, Spotswood, and the developer, Kaplan at Helmetta LLC, over the specifics of the project, and who would pay (and how much) for the education of the students who’ll be living in the new units. Under the settlement, Kaplan will pay $275,000 per year in lieu of taxes. Middlesex County will take 5 percent of that. Spotswood (where the students will be educated in its school system) and Helmetta will split the rest, and each will get about $130,000 a year for 22 years.

Nobody got everything they wanted in the final analysis, but you’ve got to think there were lots of folks in Helmetta sighing in relief. The old snuff mill buildings are deteriorating from entropy, and for years have been nothing more than an attractive nuisance for kids and adventurers wanting to get a look inside the historic piles. Now, they’ll be spared the wrecking ball, and are facing a much brighter future as home to families and kids. There’s no doubt the housing complex will breathe new life into the sleepy community.

“We are finally on the road to moving Helmetta forward, and I am very grateful for the support of the Helmetta residents and the members of both the Borough Council and the Planning Board for all the time they have spent on getting us here today,” Helmetta Mayor Nancy Martin said.

It will certainly reduce the community’s creepiness factor. For 15 years, I drove past the darkened snuff mill buildings nearly every night on the way home from work, and the eerie, supernatural hulks at the edge of the headlights always made me glad that I was in the safe cocoon of my vehicle. With a full moon rising over the tops of the vacant and foreboding buildings, which seemed to swallow the meager light, I wouldn’t have walked around the snuff mill grounds at night without a bag full of wooden stakes and a gallon of holy water. I had no idea what could be lurking in the shadows of those buildings (the Head Clunker?), but I knew it would be unpleasant.

Best case, you’d run into Max at the start of his wild rumpus (the illustrations in the first pages of “Where the Wild Things Are” bear a striking resemblance to the snuff mill at night), or the ghost of George Washington Helme, the snuff magnate who died on the front porch of his mansion at 11 High St. Some historians say he died unexpectedly of a heart attack; others think he died of shock after finally trying his awful product (you know what I mean if you’ve ever sucked a hit of snuff up your nostril). Worst case, you’d turn a corner and there’d be the aforementioned Freddy Krueger, about to snuff. . . you. In a few years, the scariest thing you’ll run into at the snuff mill is a gaggle of witches and pirates if you happen to drive through on Halloween when the kids are out trick-ortreating. Ah, progress.

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Speaking of progress, on that same ride back and forth to work, about once a month I’d get held up in Jamesburg by another numskull who ignored the warning signs and tried to drive his 14-foot trailer under the 12-foothigh railroad overpass on Gatzmer Avenue. The offending driver would have to sit there like a mouse in a trap until the police came along to write him up, then they’d let enough air out of his tires to lower the profile of the rig by an inch or so to enable the driver to get free. Then, he’d have to back the rig up to a turnaround, while motorists cooled their jets and grumbled about stupidity.

Previously, the fine for ignoring the warnings was $500, but the Borough Council voted last week to increase the fine to $750 (at least it’s easy to catch the height violators because they’re stuck). And here’s my favorite part of the new fine schedule: repeat offenders are subject to a $1,000 fine for each violation. You’d think someone dumb enough to get stuck under the bridge once would learn from the experience (like cats learn to avoid walking on a hot stove), but apparently some of them don’t. I think they missed an opportunity by not making the fine for repeat offenders $10,000 and forcing the goofball to sit on the main thoroughfare for an afternoon wearing a dunce cap.

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And speaking of alleged repeat offenders: Theft charges were filed last week by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office against the former president of the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Officers’ Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) and another man who is a former state delegate for the union.

Paul Lucarelli, 46, of South River, former president of PBA Local 165, and Mark Papi, 57, of Edison, a former union delegate, both allegedly used union credit cards to pay for flights for family members to PBA conventions and hotel stays. The two men, according to the AG’s complaint, reimbursed none of the unauthorized charges — amounting to thousands of dollars. The men have been released on their own recognizance, and the charges will be presented to a grand jury for possible indictment.

This wasn’t Lucarelli’s first brush with state authorities. He was suspended from his job as a Middlesex County sheriff’s officer in August 2011 after he, Sheriff Joseph C. Spicuzzo, and another officer in Spicuzzo’s department — former Sheriff’s Investigator Darrin P. DiBiasi — were charged with being part of a jobs-for-cash scheme that allegedly raked in about $112,000 in bribes from people who wanted jobs in the department. Those charges are also still pending, and as usual, we note that they must be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.

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