Use the force, Mike Degirolamo

The force is not with Mike Degirolamo at the moment.

With the opening of Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith a little more than five months away, Degirolamo says township officials are holding up his plan to build a 20-by-12-foot model of a Jawa Sandcrawler on the property of a local business.

The Sandcrawler resembles a large rusty Dumpster with belt wheels like those on a tank. It is a vehicle used in the movie by the Jawas, a mischievous scavenger species featured heavily in the first Star Wars film in 1977.

“Star Wars to me is a work of art,’ said Degirolamo, who also goes by “Michael Fright.’ “It’s like no one can imagine anything.’

In 2002, Degirolamo — who has been making large models at his home for years — built a 35-foot Tantive IV ship that was displayed at local theaters during the release of Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.

Degirolamo, 38, never applied for any permits to build that ship and township inspectors soon caught wind.

“I guess neighbors were complaining about it,’ said Degirolamo, who had to erect a fence around his former home in Blackwood.

Degirolamo and his family have since moved to another home in the township, which they rent. When his landlord told him he couldn’t build the sandcrawler there, Degirolamo pitched his idea to local businesses.

Most of them came back and said their insurance wouldn’t let them do it, said Degirolamo, a married father of six.

But one business — Mulch Express — loved the idea. Company officials told Degirolamo he could build the sandcrawler in a fenced-in lot on their Black Horse Pike property.

“Nobody was offering the guy any space,’ said Scott Hulmes, Mulch Express’ manager. “I think it’s great if that’s what the guy is into.’

Township officials say Degirolamo’s plan has two specific problems.

First, Mulch Express is in a historic redevelopment zone and prone to tighter ordinance restrictions.

Second, if the sandcrawler is built, it would be classified as outside storage.

“This is certainly one of these gray areas,’ said Ed Sayers, the township’s director of community development and a zoning officer. “This could wind up being an attractive nuisance and a safety concern if kids try to climb on it.’

Degirolamo pleaded his case at a recent township council meeting.

Although he brought models and blueprints of the sandcrawler and Mulch Express property, council members said they would have to hold a special meeting to discuss the project, Degirolamo said.

Hulmes said he supports Degirolamo’s artistic endeavor but not to the point where the company is going to file for permits or fight the township’s decision.

“We wanted to give the guy a place to build his model,’ Hulmes said. “We don’t want any problems out of this.’

Degirolamo has put together smaller portions of the sandcrawler at home, but he would need to fully assemble the vehicle at Mulch Express.

Just as Rebel fighters destroyed the under-construction Imperial Death Star in Return of the Jedi, Degirolamo fears township officials would make him tear the Sandcrawler down if he brought it to the business.

“I’m getting down to the wire here,’ he said. “I’ve got to get this done.’

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