$6.1M for Johnsonia inaccessible.

Byline: Paula J. Owen

FITCHBURG - The city is standing by, waiting to use part of $6.1 million in insurance money should the fire-ravaged Johnsonia building on Main Street become structurally dangerous this winter.

It has been six months since the six-alarm fire that ripped through the top floor of the five-story building the evening of June 13, leaving more than 60 people displaced. The lower floors have extensive water and smoke damage.

City Solicitor Michael Ciota said the city was denied access to $6.1 million in insurance money at a hearing in Housing Court in Worcester Dec. 17. It wanted to use the money to help make the building safer, but it has a lien against the money and was told to come back should the building become dangerous. No one can touch the money, he explained - including the building's owner, tenants or the city - unless all agree.

"Our concern is a heavy load of snow and ice and a series of freezes and thaws, especially after rain," said Mr. Ciota. "At the present moment it is not dangerous, but the Oct. 30 snowstorm cracked the trusses that support the remaining portion of the top floor. If that happens, we're in deep trouble. We want to deal with this ahead of time."

Since the fire, the building has structurally deteriorated, and the city and state Department of Environmental Protection are concerned about asbestos in the building. Owner Clark Straight, who also lived in a condo on the top floor, was ordered by the court to complete asbestos abatement in the building several months ago.

"The city remains frustrated at the lack of progress," Mayor Lisa A. Wong said. "We are keeping a close eye on the building in terms of potential public safety issues, but it is under the jurisdiction of the owners of the building. We don't have access to determine where it stands structurally."

Furthermore, Mr. Straight owes the city $224,000 in back taxes and $24,000 in back water and sewer bills, she said.

Mr. Ciota said the city's Board of Health is checking to ensure asbestos abatement started this week.

Michael P. Burns, the Health Department's sanitary inspector, said...

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