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October 1, 2012

Herald News: A home too large to keep

From: - Oct 1, 2012

IT TOOK a church's lengthy crusade, the visit of an Oscar winner and the efforts of volunteer builders and contractors to put the Llanes family into a fairy-tale home that perfectly suited everyone's needs.

It took the cold reality of New Jersey property taxes to drive them out.

The Llanes of Bergenfield were featured on ABC's television show, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" in 2006. Actress Marlee Matlin came to their door to let them know of their good fortune. Then the construction crew turned a small, split-level house with wonky plumbing and sharp corners into a larger, elegant home with $100,000 worth of technology designed to assist family members who have disabilities.

Now the tech-savvy house is up for sale, victim of property taxes that have more than doubled from $6,488 in 2007 to more than $15,000 this year, Staff Writer Rebecca D. O'Brien reports. The property tax bill isn't the only reason the Llanes's moved south — there's also the matter of cold weather here and much of their extended family there — but it's a big factor. The family took advantage of a law that allows municipalities to give disabled families a five-year tax break on property improvements. Then the tax break ended.

Sometimes the best gift can turn into more than a recipient can handle. At least a dozen "Extreme Makeover" houses have been given up by owners forced out by higher taxes and utility bills that were a consequence of dream-come-true construction. It's the dark side of good television and good intentions — the unfortunate fifth act.

But in the case of the Llanes house, there can be a second happy ending: another family with similar needs can move in and make use of the high-tech help already there.

Vicente Llanes, the father, is blind. The two daughters have lost their sight to the same disease, and the son was born deaf after Maria, Vicente's wife, came down with German measles during the pregnancy.

Their rebuilt home is run by a talking computer that can, among other things, turn lights on and off, control the heat, give a weather report and start the toaster. There's a Braille printer, vibrating smoke alarms and alarm clock, software that turns spoken words into sign language and a doorbell for the deaf and blind.

Junking it all seems a big waste of effort, time and goodwill, as well as a colossal mistake. Bergenfield public officials and a nonprofit organization specializing in helping people with disabilities should work with the Llanes family to find the next perfect family to take up residence.

Private-sector good Samaritans could pitch in, too, by offering to pay some of the high property taxes, which would greatly ease the new occupants' burden.

We understand that Bergenfield, like every town, needs as many houses as possible on the tax rolls. We also know that an increasing number of families include someone with a disability and retrofitting a home with special equipment can be prohibitively expensive.

It took a determined church two years to catch the eye of the makeover show's producers. When the television crews came to town to record the extensive renovations, volunteers turned out in droves to help. The Llanes family needs the community's generous help again, this time in the form of creative thinking.

"Extreme Makeover: Second Edition." That would be the right ending.

@ 2012 North Jersey Media Group