Morristown judge slaps ‘sober living’ home with $25K fines

Morristown Municipal Judge William Pinilis fines a 'sober living' residence, via Zoom, Jan. 26, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin
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A Morristown judge on Tuesday slapped a “sober living” residence with approximately $25,000 in fines for operating without a permit.

The decision, delivered during a Zoom hearing, upholds the town’s right to enforce its zoning laws over state licensing designed to provide transitional housing for people recovering from substance abuse.

Town officials welcomed the ruling. For months, residents have voiced concerns about supervision of the facility on Shady Lane, safety, and their property values.

“It’s a cautious win,” said Councilman Robert Iannaccone, whose First Ward includes that neighborhood.

“We are going through the process the right way,” Mayor Tim Dougherty echoed  at Tuesday’s virtual council meeting.

Penalties of $100 per day are retroactive to last May, when the town cited  Tranquility Estates for running a boarding house in a neighborhood zoned for single family homes.

Those fines will continue every day the venture operates illegally, ruled newly appointed Municipal Judge William Pinilis.

“As it sits before me right now, I have a situation where they were denied a permit, and they’re operating in violation of that denial,” a violation of the town zoning ordinance, Pinilis said during the 45-minute virtual hearing.

He would have imposed even stiffer fines had the town asked, he said.
BOARDING HOUSE OR FAMILY UNIT?

No local permit is needed because the state Department of Community Affairs granted a license last April for a Cooperative Sober Living Residence, argued Francis Falkenstein, attorney for Dr. Michael T. Hernando and Connie Hernando, owners of the Shady Lane home.

Up to 10 individuals may be housed there, according to the state license.

Falkenstein said he helped draft DCA regulations creating Cooperative Sober Living Residences.

Attorney Francis Falkenstein, Jan. 25, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

“The entire point was to … carve out, under certain circumstances, these licenses being allowed in single family residential homes, and to avoid discriminatory zoning by towns to keep people out,” Falkenstein said.

Regardless of the state license, there is no local violation, insisted Falkenstein.

“The entire design in the setup was to mimic a family unit,” which Morristown allows, said the lawyer. He told Pinilis he could not fully answer the judge’s questions, because he has tested positive for COVID-19 and is quarantined, without access to his office files.

Attorney Donald Soutar, representing Tranquility Estates, also sounded a we-are-family defense.

The town has “cited us for violating a provision relating to rooming houses and boarding houses, neither of which my client operates,” he said.

Attorney Donald Soutar, Jn. 26, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Soutar asked Pinilis to reduce the fines to $1 per day, to no avail.  He also pressed a technical argument, suggesting the town had no permit application to deny, because Tranquility Estates never paid a filing fee.

The only reason his client submitted that application at all was because the town requested it, Soutar asserted.

“It was certainly not required. And we did it because we were new to the town, we wanted to be a good neighbor in the town. And we thought that it was, you know, quite frankly a ministerial act, in this case, given the clarity of the DCA regs,” he said.

Morristown Municipal Prosecutor Robert Rudy at virtual hearing, Jan. 26, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Tranquility Estates should have appealed the permit denial by Zoning Officer James Campbell to the town zoning board, countered Municipal Prosecutor Robert Rudy.

“That was the proper procedure. And because they didn’t do that, they simply continue to operate. And that’s the problem that we have,” Rudy said.

The judge agreed, adding:

“For what it’s worth, I find that this use is more like a rooming house, than it is like a family. I don’t think this use meets… the municipality’s definition of the family.”

The town tried to shut down the operation last year. But a Superior Court judge declined to issue a cease-and-desist order, and the matter returned to municipal court.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. I live near them. needle was real. They are not good neighbors, and whole thing has been allowed to fester. If judge could have imposed larger fines if town had asked ..well, why didnt town ask? Right now their sidewalk is covered with ice and snow and last storm has been over for two days.

  2. They seem proud to be part of the problem! As a society we have got to stop punishing the healers of this horrible epidemic and those seeking help to change there life around. Breweries, Distillerys & Dispensarys are being celebrated as they pop up all of the country. @nightmare neighbors these people are drugtested daily and are sober. If by any chance they are not they have to leave. Thats the modelnfor all sober living. You calling someones son or daughter, some childs parent who is trying to change their life a “junkie” is a huge problem. You are hiding behind a fake name spouting this nonsense. I really hope non of the residents of the sober living read your rediculous hate speech.

  3. My friend stayed here and I asked him what it was like. No one is screaming at the house. There’s cameras in the house. No one is drinking beers or using needles. Everyone gets drug and alcohol tested at the house regularly. No guests are allowed. There are techs monitoring the house at all times. These neighbors blatant lies are the reason so many people are afraid to get help. More deaths this year from substance abuse then any other year. It’s sad to see the neighbors acting this way. Btw he’s now 7 months clean and back working at his job as a school teacher.

  4. In court documents it is recorded that a 10 ml syringe was found on a neighboring property. I invite anyone to Google 10ml syringe. They are gigantic and would be used to administer tranquilizers to a hippo or liquid benadryl orally. There isn’t an addict alive who would use one of these. These idiot neighbors are trying to set these people up and falling miserably at it.

    When the dust settles, Morristown is gonna owe millions for fair housing violations. Great use of tax payers dollars.

  5. If we can focus on the real issue – Morristown is disguising this as a “zoning” issue, when in reality they just want to get of certain people they don’t like (which is illegal). If the real problem was noise, garbage, etc., they give tickets all the time for these violations so they would have solved that problem already.

  6. How about everyone commenting on this story knows the facts. First of all the Town of Morristown has several different zones throughout the town, the majority of which are zoned for Multi-Family or Mixed Use. If you google “town of morristown nj zone map” there is a clear map that shows how the town is laid out. What you will see is that the majority of the town is NOT zoned single family residential only a select few neighborhoods are, and by the way that includes the Shady Lane neighborhood. What that means is that a sober living facility that houses up to 10 nonrelated individuals violates the zoning laws period. Some made a comment that other sober living facilities and half way houses in town have no problem, that may be but they are also located in appropriate zones and have a right to be there this is not the case. This facility has operated from day one (April of 2020) without any zoning approval from the town.

  7. There is no discrimination here. I live on Shady Lane and have a family member who had substance abuse issues and received treatment. That house is zoned for single occupancy by a family and not for sober living. As for the needle I was on the Zoom for the Town Council Meeting and they had decided not to test it. It was real and it was dumped on a neighboring property.

  8. In Recovery and blessed. I live on Shady Lane and my Brother is a recovering alcoholic and drug abuser. He got the help he needed and did not reside in a house zoned for residential purposes only. The garbage is left out for days, no one wears a mask and it’s loud. I invite you to come by one day while all our children are playing outside to this and see what your react is. The needle we know about, no one was arrested because the town decided not to test it. No one is discriminating against anyone. We want what the house was zoned for, one family living there.

  9. Why don’t we just say what it is – discrimination. Clearly, as Lorena stated, certain people that live in the neighborhood don’t want people in recovery with them. Part of living in a sober environment is regular drug screens. The individuals living there need to comply with rules so I find it highly doubtful there are needles & other paraphernalia in the streets. Why has the MPD not arrested anyone on drug charges? Not because they’re useless – because there’s nothing to charge them with. People sometimes need a break & the ability to start over. Shame on all of you that are too good to see that.

  10. I live on the block! They are not SOBER! Needles, Trash, and women running in and out!!! Unloading cases of Beer in the evening is not SOBER!
    Grass uncut for months, leaves not raked on property. It’s unsightly!
    Get off your high horse, and take them into your neighborhood! Better yet Bleeding Hearts, let them reside in your House!

  11. Unless you live on this block, which I do and have seen what we have dealt with no one should get on their high horse and judge us. This home is zoned as a one family house and not for sober living. No one would be this judgemental if it was their house they worked so hard to own and then one day tried to sell it with this on their block. I think you’d be thinking more like the residents or our block do right now.

  12. I find it suspect that out of all the Sober Living and 1/2 Houses in Morristown, this particular house is a problem. But yet this…yup just this one is an issue. Maybe because the town attorney Mr Pawar and 2 commisoners live in that neighborhood.

  13. This town i see still needs a lot of help. People are the problem and will always be the problem, when you have hate in your hearts.

  14. I think we all know of some neighbors that are less than ideal. But the fact that people are calling them junkies and such is despicable. I pray that none of you have any loved ones that end up struggling with addiction, mabye you’d be less judgmental. This town is filled with snobs who never struggled a day in their lives

  15. Donna Locke, you don’t know what you’re talking about. What leniency should they get for constantly throwing parties during a pandemic? Maybe invite them to stay in your neighborhood where they can throw needles and trash into other people’s properties. Put your money where your mouth is if you’re so compassionate.

  16. In times of this uncertainty you would think that this would’ve been given leniency. Due to this pandemic many people find themselves struggling to pay mortgage, rent in many different housing situation. People looking to get help especially those in a transitional period or more likely to fall through the cracks even more despair for everyone involved. Honestly I think it’s despicable even if it were not desperate measures because the whole point of the transitional housing is to help Service get off the streets and back into working positions which currently are not available to most so therefore these people need extra help. This judge has either had a very sheltered life or he has refused to see the reality. Apparently he has been blessed and not have this in his own family situation or he will understand. Shelters or run a nonprofit, private donations etc. There is no town, Burrow city or state that is immune to the disease of addiction. If they cannot be helped in their own Town and what does that say about us as a community? Ignorance is not the answer but education is the key and compassion for our fellow man.

  17. I live near them on Franklin. These junkies and their trashy hood rat friends are a complete nightmare and constantly screaming. MPD, as always, continue to be completely useless.

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