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FORMER "CAMPGROUND" TENANTS ARE SUING FOR FINANCIAL RELOCATION ASSISTANCE




In 2022, the Ocean County Board of Commissioners purchased the Surf and Stream Campground near the border of Manchester and Toms River townships.


The county negotiated a $7.45 million sale price for the 20.10 acre site.


At the time, County officials stated that the property was "crime-plagued" and that their acquisition of the property would return it to its natural state beside the upper branches of the Toms River.


The contention, however, is that the property owners had apparently misrepresented it to the County as "a seasonal campground with no permanent residents," while in reality, the sprawling property was packed with dirt roads lined with campers, trailers and some tents - occupied year-round by rent paying residents.


These former residents are now suing the County to recoup financial relocation assistance that they believe they are legally entitled to receive.


The former residents are represented by Toms River Attorneys Kevin N. Starkey Esq. and Scott W. Kenneally, Esq., of Starkey, Kelly, Kenneally, Cunningham, Turnbach & Yannone.


According to their lawsuit, newly filed in New Jersey Superior Court in Ocean County:


The property was owned and operated since February 2005 by a private entity known as Riverside at Manchester, LLC (“Riverside”). Despite the name Surf & Stream Campground, Riverside operated the Property as a mobile home park, with the trailer residences (owned individually by the tenants) remaining in place for years, the tenants paying rent to Riverside on a monthly basis, and the tenants occupying their trailers as their primary residences on a full-time, year-round basis.


As of January 2022, approximately 100 rental units on the Property were occupied by about 160 full-time, year-round residents. The tenants resided on the Property pursuant to individual leases with Riverside, with monthly rental payments typically in the amount of $675.00 per month.


In early 2022, reports began circulating that the County was in talks to purchase the property.


In response, a number of tenants went to the next County Commissioners meeting and voiced their objections, stating that they live here full-time and would have no other place to move to.


Commissioner Haines replied, “We’ve been told that it’s a seasonal campground, not a year-round campground." James Ackerman replied: “And it is not.” Commissioner Quinn stated, “We don’t buy the land unless the land is already vacant of all property owners or people that are renting property.”


The Commissioners told the tenants that they had to raise their concerns directly with Riverside, the owner of the Property, and stated (falsely) that the County was not involved in their potential removal.


One of the Commissioners told the tenants, “We have the Director of Consumer Affairs, Steve Scaturro, he would be more than happy that if you want him to review it… we don’t know what we can do but before you go to a lawyer, or take any action, Steve Scaturro has a lot of expertise.”


On January 20, 2022, one day after the January 19th Commissioner meeting, an employee working under Scaturro in the County Consumer Affairs department, Maria Laface, wrote an email to Scaturro stating that the campground residents “may be entitled to relocation assistance…” Scaturro and the County never notified Plaintiffs that they might be entitled to relocation assistance. Scaturro and the County never undertook an investigation to determine if Plaintiffs were full-time residents of the Property and were entitled to relocation assistance benefits.


The Relocation Assistance Act, enacted in 1971, is intended to provide relocation assistance to persons who are forced out of their homes by government action. The purpose of the Act is to “minimize hardship and assure that individuals will not suffer disproportionate injuries as a result of programs designed for the benefit of the public as a whole.” The Act requires notice by the displacing agency to displaced persons, which notice is required to be served “in writing, at the earliest possible date” whenever a governmental entity undertakes activities that “shall cause a displacement of individuals … that are eligible for relocation payments and assistance.” The governmental entity causing the displacement of persons must provide specific relocation assistance benefits to the displaced persons, prior to their displacement.


On January 26, 2022, an attorney for Riverside sent an email to the County Counsel, emphasizing the need to “move this matter quickly,” stating: “My client would be normally sending out new leases. He is not going to do that based upon the impending sale.” The attorney for Riverside followed up later that day with an email to the County Planner stating about the transaction: “this one is going to need particular massaging and given the occupants a quicker pace from the beginning.”


The County was thus well aware, based on the emails from Diaz, the statements by the tenants at the County meeting on January 19, 2022, and the Laface email on January 20, 2022, that Plaintiffs were full-time tenants, were requesting relocation assistance benefits and that the County might have a legal obligation to provide such benefits.


Despite the awareness of its potential legal obligations to the tenants, the County proceeded to enter into a contract with Riverside on March 16, 2022 for the purchase of the Property for a price of $7.4 million. The County required a specific condition in the contract -- Riverside had to remove all tenants and their trailer homes from the Property prior to closing. The Contract had no clause that referenced any relocation assistance benefits for the tenants.


On June 1, 2022, several tenants, including some Plaintiffs, attended the public meeting of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners, where they begged the Commissioners for help in relocating.


Edward Babson said, “there’s a lot of people in there that just can’t afford anywhere else.” Commissioner Quinn replied: “You should go back to Mr. Starkey and Mr. Turnbach [attorneys for Plaintiffs herein], tell them the Commissioners think they’re excellent attorneys, file a lawsuit and get this thing into court because that’s the only place you’re going to get any kind of settlement and be able to resolve it. Because a judge is going to be an impartial person who is going to sit down and look at the whole matter itself, how it got to where it’s at now, who is being hurt. And I think that’s the only way out of it.” Commissioner Haines added “I would do exactly what Commissioner Quinn has said, to talk to your attorneys to possibly file because it’s going to have to land in the hands of the courts.”


On June 21, 2022, one of the tenants, Marie Cicalo, did just that. She filed a Verified Complaint and Order to Show Cause seeking to enjoin Riverside and the County from pursuing eviction actions against herself and the other tenants until they complied with their obligations under the Act, including the provision of proper notice and relocation assistance benefits.


The County opposed a stay of evictions, contending that the Act required relocation assistance only when property is acquired through eminent domain, while the property at issue was being acquired through a negotiated agreement with Riverside.


Cicalo, in her papers filed with the Court, countered the County’s position by pointing to the policies and practices undertaken by Monmouth County, which fully complied with the Act when acquiring properties for open space through negotiated agreements with the owner.


Judge Francis Hodgson ruled that the more appropriate forum – to address the legal issue raised by the County as to whether the Act applied in the case of a negotiated purchase -- was the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which reviews and approves relocation assistance plans. Judge Hodgson directed Cicalo to file a petition with the DCA to determine the legal issue of whether the Act applied to tenants displaced by property acquired through negotiation. 


Judge Hodgson warned at the hearing, however, that if the Act applied, then the cost for relocation benefits, based on the Monmouth County payments, could be “substantial,” estimating that $25,000 for each of the 100 tenant units on the Property would result in a total cost “somewhere around $10 million if [the County] were paying $7.5 million for [the] piece of property.”


The tenants did just that - they filed a petition to the DCA. The matter was then transferred to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL).


Ultimately, on May 16, 2023, after reviewing briefs on the legal issue and on stipulated facts, the OAL judge rejected the County’s argument and ruled that “the statutes [the Relocation Assistance Law and Relocation Assistance Act] do not require the use of Eminent Domain by a government entity before relocation assistance is available.”


The OAL judge ruled:

I CONCLUDE that the Relocation Assistance Law and Relocation Assistance Act are applicable because the County is a publicly funded entity and the contract to purchase the Surf & Stream Campground is the direct cause of the petitioner’s vacating the campground. N.J.A.C. 5:11-2.2(a). Further the County shall not be relieved of its obligation to provide payments and benefits as provided by requiring Riverside, the owner, to cause the property to be free of tenants prior to the sale. N.J.A.C. 5:11-2.2(b).


The County, however, did not wait for a ruling on the applicability of the Act from the DCA before displacing Plaintiffs and all other tenants and closing on its acquisition of the Property. While the DCA Action was pending, the County and Riverside continued to aggressively prosecute the eviction actions against Plaintiffs and the other tenants. By December 2022 – four months after the issue was submitted to the DCA but before any ruling -- the County and Riverside had evicted Plaintiffs and all other tenants.


Most Plaintiffs were unable to remove their trailers from the Property, due to either the physical condition of the trailers or a lack of financial resources.


The County demolished or caused the removal of all trailers that remained on the Property.


The tenants have been displaced from their homes by the County and have been deprived of any relocation assistance. Many were rendered homeless or forced into substandard housing. Several continue to be homeless as of the filing of this action.


The County was obligated to ensure that Plaintiffs had decent, safe and sanitary replacement housing. The tenants have not been provided such benefits, to which they are rightfully entitled by law.


The County has further violated the Act by failing to honor the stated purpose of the Act: “The purpose of this act is to establish a uniform policy for the fair and equitable treatment of persons displaced by the acquisition of real property by State and local land acquisition programs… Such policy shall be uniform as to a. relocation payments, b. advisory assistance, c. assurance of availability of standard housing, and d. State reimbursement for local relocation payments under State assisted and local programs.” (N.J.S.A. 20:4-2).


The policies of Ocean County in refusing relocation assistance to displaced persons at the Property are neither uniform with other counties nor fair and equitable.


Despite the clear requirements of the Act, and the subsequent ruling by the DCA Commissioner that Ocean County was obligated to comply with the Act for all displaced tenants, Ocean County has undertaken none of its statutory obligations to the displaced tenants, prior to acquiring the Property.


The 7 count complaint demands judgment awarding relocation assistance benefits due to Plaintiffs under the Relocation Assistance Act, compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and costs, and such other and further relief as the court deems just and proper.


The County has 35 days to an answer the complaint.


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