FRANKLIN-Asbestos is being removed from the former Franklin Hospital, an action that could clear the way for it to be demolished. "This is just part of that long process of getting the site prepared for sale," said a spokesman for St. Clare's Health System, owner of the hospital. "We've looked at it from a safety perspective and a risk perspective. We're taking those steps that we think are necessary and needed until it does become the property of the developer." Other than removing the asbestos, the spokesman said, "We have no plans to do anything." Jerry Nardella is the Wayne-based developer who is under contract to buy the building. He described the asbestos removal as part of a "clean-up" process. He said he was not prepared to discuss the future of the 96-year-old building at the present time, but would have more information sometime after the first of the year. The hospital, which was opened in 1908 by the former New Jersey Zinc Co. in order to get quicker, better care for injured miners, has remained closed since November, 2003 and is up for sale by St. Clare's, which has owned the hospital and its surrounding property since 1994. Unoccupied for more than a year, the building is in a state of disrepair. Local preservationists want to preserve the old building as part of the town's historic mining past. Area residents want to prevent large-scale development on the wooded property it occupies. "Our purpose is to sell the building and the property," the St. Clare's spokesman said. "We want to sell it and use that money to better serve the people we serve." Nardella last May applied for zoning variances to build a 192-unit townhouse development on the site, which was zoned residential with a maximum density of 2.9 units per acre. Nardella's asked to be allowed to build at ten units per acre. He also applied for a variance from height restrictions and asked to designate the development as age-restricted housing. When it became clear that the board might reject the variance requests, Nardella withdrew the application. Since then, the property has been rezoned to allow up to six units per acre. Asbestos, a fire-retardant material with known carcinogenic links, often is removed from buildings that are scheduled for renovation or demolition. A town resident explained that on a recent visit to the site, a worker confirmed the asbestos removal. "I just happened to be there, and I asked the guy if they were removing the asbestos, and he said, yes,'" explained the resident, who asked not to be identified. "And I asked if they were going to demolish the building, would they remove the asbestos, and he said, Yes.'" Mayor Doug Kistle said he had no knowledge of the work or why it was being done.