Asserting that “some departments fell short,” Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty on Tuesday apologized to angry Shady Lane residents who said their complaints about a possibly illegal boarding home were ignored.
“I can’t point fingers. But everything stops with me,” Dougherty said. He promised prompt responses from town employees going forward, and noted the town is taking the landlord to court.
At least 15 neighbors from the neighborhood came to the council meeting to vent frustrations about a single-family home at 1 Shady Lane.
Ever since the house was rented to eight college students this summer, neighbors said, they have been forced to deal with loud parties, cars lining both sides of their cul-de-sac, Uber pickups and dropoffs at all hours, and beer bottles and trash on their lawns.
“The noise is unbearable,” said Alba Rossi-George, warning that the neighborhood will deteriorate unless something is done.
Several residents said they now fear for the safety of their young children, and for their property values.
Joel Schreiber said he moved to Shady Lane so his 7-year-old daughter could learn to ride her bike in safety. “This is no longer the case,” he said. He also worries about the longterm value of their home, “the biggest investment of our entire lives.”
“This is wrong. The reason I moved into a residential neighborhood is so I wouldn’t have to deal with this,” said homeowner Patrick Housel, who has children aged 6 and 3. “This is bad for me, bad for all my neighbors, and bad for the town.”
‘WE FEEL WE’RE IN THE DARK’
When residents lodged complaints on the town web site…they heard nothing from officials.
“We kind of feel we’re in the dark,” said Lauren Bas, choking back tears.
Hobbling to the microphone with a walker, retiree Bonnie Gregg said she complained to town hall last year about 1 Shady Lane remaining boarded up from a fatal fire in 2014.
She complained again two months ago, this time about the new problems, she said. Neither complaint was acknowledged, she said.
“The zoning is not enforced at all,” Gregg told the council. “How can you actually get some valid, dependable answers from the town?”
Town inspectors actually followed through on the complaints, citing owner Peter Scumaci with seven violations of town zoning-, property-, fire safety- and building codes, the Mayor and town Administrator Jillian Barrick said. A municipal court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 26, 2017.
Yet officials failed to update citizens who reported the problems, acknowledged Dougherty, who is seeking a third term next month. He vowed to hold department heads accountable, adding that he warned them: “Don’t let people blank all over our community.”
Town employees now must respond to public complaints within 24 hours, Barrick said.
Councilman Robert Iannaccone, whose First Ward includes Shady Lane, suggested the town hire a human resources professional to help discipline officials. He also urged revamping of zoning laws, to eliminate loopholes he blames for at least four questionable boarding home situations near Morristown Medical Center.
Iannaccone took exception to Council President Stefan Armington’s recommendation that residents keep calling police, so the party crowd eventually will “go someplace else.”
“With all due respect, you should not have to do this,” Iannaccone said.
So how is it legally possible for a house zoned for one family to accommodate eight unrelated people? Or how, asked Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Alison Deeb, can one household obtain eight street parking permits from the town?
Town Clerk Kevin Harris, whose office issues the parking passes, could not answer that one.
As for zoning, it’s tricky because traditional definitions of “family” are fading, according to town Attorney Vij Pawar.
Morristown defines single-family dwellings as a “single housekeeping unit,” he told the council. While the lawyer thinks that prohibits leasing to eight unrelated tenants, a judge could see things differently.
Scumaci, who bought the fire-damaged house last year for $325,000, said he hopes to be a good neighbor and will abide by any court recommendations.
“The community has rights, the neighbors have rights, and so do the [college] kids,” Scumaci, father of former council candidate Maria Scumaci, said after Tuesday’s meeting.
Peter Scumaci said he worked hard and spent lots of money to rehab the house. As for the eight tenants living there, he said: “I gave it to a realtor to lease.”