News Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.
On Aug. 6, 2021, Judy Coppola, 63, was sound asleep in Unit 269 at Coachlight Square in Montrose when she was suddenly awakened in her bedroom shortly before 10 p.m. by a firefighter telling her to evacuate.
A massive fire that started in Unit 262 was traveling rapidly in the attic space of six attached condominiums in the complex off Kings Ferry Road before being blocked by a firewall that protected six other units in the L-shaped building from being engulfed by flames.
Sergio Castellanos, 32, also escaped physically unscathed from Unit 263 with his wife, two sons, another relative, and two pet cockatoos.
The condominium he purchased two years ago wasn’t as fortunate as it was, and its contents were destroyed.
“We didn’t hear anything. We only heard people screaming, ‘Fire, fire!’” Castellanos recalled. “We were living a dream having the house that we wanted, and then we lost everything. You have nothing to do with a fire, and you lose everything.”
More than 100 firefighters from 15 fire companies responded to the scene and put o
ut the blaze in about two hours.
However, the lingering effects of the devastation loom large 13 months later as the frustrated unit owners grapple with uncertainty over when they will be able to move back in and mounting expenses from having to pay a mortgage, property taxes, common charges and rent, along with costs associated with the damage from the fire.
“It’s just a horror. It’s been worse than the fire itself, and there’s no reason for it,” Coppola remarked. “A total nightmare.”
Shannon Fulgum, who has lived in Unit 264 with her husband Bruce for 18 years, echoed Coppola’s sentiments about the situation.
“It’s a nightmare that’s just gotten worse,” she said. “We lost everything.”
Six condominium units were destroyed, and two others suffered severe water and smoke damage. All eight are being rebuilt. Four others that also had smoke damage are being gutted and renovated.
The Board of Managers of the Coachlight Square Association hired Belfor Property Restoration 12 days after the fire and issued a check for $2,282,752.84 — the total cost of the work — in November.
That decision has come under severe scrutiny from residents and Cortlandt Supervisor Dr. Richard Becker, who has set up meetings with homeowners, the Board of Managers, and Belfor representatives to encourage an open dialogue and get a realistic timeline. Residents believe Belfor has been in no hurry to complete the project since it has already been paid in full, while Becker threatened to report Belfor to the state Attorney General.
“This is a classic case of time is money,” Becker said. “The contractor was paid in advance. That was a poor way of handling it. They [Belfor] were a little slow out of the box. There have been legitimate delays in the builder meeting with each homeowner. We’re all disappointed it hasn’t been done quicker.”
“It’s a s— show,” Coppola asserted. “This should have been done in six months. It’s 12 very modest units. We’re not building mansions here.”
Mike Salamone, Belfor’s project manager at Coachlight, was contacted by Examiner Media, but he referred all questions to the company’s public relations department, which did not return a message. At a meeting with town officials and residents on Sept. 13, it was disclosed by Belfor that construction of the units was on target to be completed by Dec. 14.
Residents are less than optimistic about being able to return to their homes for the holiday season.
“Me and my mother, who is 91, will be at Cracker Barrel again for Thanksgiving,” Coppola remarked. “Thank you very much.”
“Originally, they told us a year. Now they’re telling us December. I don’t see how that’s possible,” Bruce Fulgum said. “If we’re in by Feb. 1, I’ll be happy.”
“It’s been a stressful process. They’re taking their sweet time,” Castellanos said. “I’m hoping for the best. I’m hoping by January we will be able to move back in.”
The Board of Managers at Coachlight is standing behind Belfor.
“After considering several companies, the Board agreed that Belfor Property Restoration was the best qualified to accommodate CLS’s needs,” Marilou Thompson, president of the Board of Managers, stated in an e-mail after being posed questions. “The Board and Belfor Property Restoration have worked tirelessly to keep the restoration project moving forward. The timeline is realistic, and the project is progressing in a timely manner.”
In the meantime, residents have been forced to make other living arrangements, sometimes dipping into retirement savings to survive after insurance money ran dry.
The Fulgums were fortunate to receive private contributions from friends and a GoFundMe account totaling about $40,000. They also were able to secure a small apartment from a friend until July 1, when they moved to the Amberlands Apartments complex in Croton.
Nonetheless, their monthly housing costs have risen from $2,600 to about $5,000.
Coppola is currently residing in a one-bedroom apartment in Croton. Her monthly costs have jumped from about $2,100 to $4,520. Although her unit wasn’t leveled, she has had to endure hefty expenses to clean and store any salvageable furniture.
“Once you take that money out of (a) 401(k), it’s gone,” she said. “We’re all paying for storage, and they [the Board of Managers] don’t care.”
Castellanos had to temporarily relocate his family to an apartment in Ossining, and his sons, ages 11 and five, had to change school districts.
“It doesn’t feel like home. It’s hard, especially for the kids,” Castellanos said. “It will be thousands for us to go back on our feet. We can’t afford it right now.”
Castellanos said, like his neighbors, his housing costs have doubled since the fire. He and other residents have criticized the Board of Managers for not lending a hand by eliminating or reducing the monthly common charges of as much as $700 that condominium owners are saddled with since none of them have been living on the premises.
“I’m angry,” Coppola said. “Most bylaws don’t address if you have to pay common charges if you have a catastrophic event.”
A few weeks ago, Coppola stood at the entrance to Coachlight Square to collect signatures on a petition requesting the Board of Managers call a special meeting for all unit owners to attend.
In an e-mail response, Thompson addressed the common charges, stating, “All unit owners at Coachlight Square are part of a homeowners’ association and, as such, are responsible for the expenses of the Association, whether or not they are living in the condominium.”
Another potentially sticky issue concerning residents is whether they’ll be fully protected from a future fire. Town officials insist the new construction will adhere to the latest building and fire codes, not the codes in place when the units were built about 50 years ago.
However, residents are equally worried about the well-being of the elderly woman who owns Unit 262, where the fire started from a wire in a lamp, according to a report from the Westchester Cause and Origin Team. Witnesses reported the homeowner didn’t call 911 to report the fire. Instead, she was seen wandering outside near the swimming pool on the property.
Residents, such as Castellanos, said the woman’s behavior over time raised some eyebrows, such as her being seen wearing winter clothes in the summertime and talking to herself loudly on her deck.
Over the years, police and firefighters have also reportedly responded to Unit 262 for several small fires, Bruce Fulgum said.
“We are terrified,” Coppola said. “She’s a clear and present danger to herself and others. Something has to be done.”
Verplanck Fire Chief John Scheembary, whose department led the coordinated effort to combat the blaze, said last year, “It was already pouring out the back windows when we got there.” When contacted last week, he maintained it was impossible to know how long the fire had been raging when firefighters first arrived.
Cortlandt Director of Code Enforcement Martin Rogers said it was likely certificates of occupancy to condominium owners would be issued in phases once all the necessary inspections are completed.
“We don’t usually have many failed inspections in Cortlandt,” Rogers said. “If everything is in order, we try to do things as expeditiously as we can.”
Publisher’s note: Examiner Media Editor-in-Chief Martin Wilbur owns one of the 12 units that were damaged and has been displaced since the fire.