By Marion Filler
Two parents, an attorney and a planner traded pitches and verbal volleys last week during a three-hour virtual session before Morristown’s zoning board.
At issue: Whether to allow an already completed outbuilding in the town’s Historic District to serve as a caretaker’s apartment for Cohome Inc., a community housing residence for developmentally disabled adults.
Following a short discussion and unanimous final approval for a three-story, 28-unit apartment complex on Turtle Road, Cohome took center court for the remainder of Wednesday’s meeting.
The outbuilding in question was once a garage behind Cohome, a large Victorian house on Miller Road. The garage was demolished in August 2020, and was replaced by an attractive structure.
Two permits for new construction were issued in rapid succession, the first in October 2020 for a new garage and storage area, followed by another that November for a recreation facility that included a kitchen, bath, and sleeping loft.
It set the stage for the current application: a D2 variance to allow residential use of the structure that was not stated as its original intent.
Nate Diskint, founder, owner, and executive director of Cohome as well as de facto caretaker, would be the first occupant of the new structure. He presently resides in the main building as does his younger brother, Jeremy, who is one of six disabled housemates on the premises.
At the last three virtual meetings before the zoning board, callers questioned the legality of putting a second residential unit on a single-family lot. Some also were motivated by concerns about the viability of Cohome, and wanted to know what would happen to this building if Cohome should fold or move away. What would it become?
There is a great need for such facilities throughout New Jersey, but they face financial challenges and their track record is mixed. Diskint has acquired other properties for similar purposes, and although Cohome is not licensed, it receives substantial government funding as “community housing for the developmentally disabled,” which the state considers “an inherently beneficial use.”
Cohome carries two mortgages, and also relies on grants, donations, and volunteers. According to Diskint, many of the disabled residents, including his brother Jeremy, qualify as low income individuals. Providing low income housing allows Cohome to obtain funding through multiple channels.
Although he did not participate in last week’s hearing, Diskint later told Morristown Green that the proposed caretaker facility would better support the occupants of Cohome.
“Why anyone would want to oppose that just befuddles me,” he said. “None of it makes any sense. It was a non-historic, deteriorated garage and we took it down and made a massive, massive, improvement that is good for property values.”
He was passionate about inclusivity for the disabled population, particularly in upscale neighborhoods from which they have been traditionally excluded. “Our residents have a right to enjoy a beautiful, walkable community,” he said.
‘THE BUILDING IS ALREADY BUILT’
The discussion has a narrow scope, according to Diskint, echoing the position of town Planner Phil Abramson and project planner Michael Tobia.
“The building is already built, so we’re not evaluating whether we want the building there. We’re not evaluating whether we like the architecture. The only thing we are seeking is relief to make it residential,” Diskint said.
Tobia and attorney Frank Vitolo have donated their services to Cohome. Addressing how the converted garage would be used if the property changes hands, Vitolo asserted:
“The way we would do it is to record the resolution, which would have the condition in it that an accessory dwelling could only be used for this type user, which is a home for people with disabilities.”
Abramson and Tobia agreed that the question before the board is a narrow one. Should it make an exception to allow habitation of an accessory structure in this particular case, when it is normally not permitted?
Board members peppered Tobia with questions.
One board member asked if he could identify any similar arrangements in the neighborhood. Another, Scott Wild, asked if Tobia knew of any group homes anywhere in northern New Jersey with accessory buildings for live-in caretakers.
Tobia was not aware of any, and Vitolo jumped in to suggest that if the board wanted that information, he would need to research the questions.
Board member James Bednarz pressed for a better definition of caretakers’ duties, loosely described in previous testimony by Diskint, and sought clarification of how the limitations could be lifted if the building was sold. How would “the unwinding” take place?
“Give us a little time to work out the language,” said Vitolo. The lawyer suggested submitting annual status memos to the owners of 44 Miller to preserve continuity of the resolution restrictions.
According to Tobia, if Cohome beccame a private home once again, and the new owner wished to use the accessory building as a living space, it would require a new variance from the zoning board.
The public called in.
Michael Rockland wanted to know if the board was familiar with the case of a handicapped homeowner who lived near Farragut Place 30 years ago. The person asked for — and received — a temporary variance to turn his single-family dwelling into a two-family so he could have support. He moved out a few years later, “and that house has been a two-family ever since,” Rockland said.
“With regard to granting variances, is the board thinking of the future?” he said. “Because I think the future might be more important than the case in front of you now.”
Caller Peter Antico, a parent whose daughter at one time lived in Diskint’s facilities on Hill Street, asked if Cohome was approved by the D.D.D. (New Jersey’s Division of Developmental Disabilities).
Tobia did not know what D.D.D. was, and after it was explained, erroneously replied that Cohome was “identified as a community residence licensed by the State of New Jersey.”
The home is not licensed by the state, but its third-party providers are, Diskint previously has testified.
As Antico expressed interest in moving his daughter to Cohome, he was interrupted by Vitolo, who accused him of ulterior motives, suggesting Antico was engaged in legal action against Diskint.
Antico said his attorney merely sent a letter to Diskint “requesting that upfront monies that we put up to live there (Hill Street), for which we have an agreement with him, would be returned when a new resident moved in, and could be paid back to us because a new resident had moved in. So there’s no dispute.”
Antico was told this matter was irrelevant to the zoning discussion, and his testimony ended.
Another caller, former board member Jeff Stiles, who also is a neighbor of Cohome, grilled Tobia after ascertaining that the property was zoned “R” for single family dwelling, with no reference to accessory units.
“Was the new construction given a zoning permit?” he asked. Tobia didn’t know, and admitted he had not done a full review of zoning and permits.
Stiles continued by asking Tobia to define the new building.
“Is this a carriage house? Is this a garage?”
Tobia chose to call it an accessory unit.
Then Stiles asked for a description of the outbuilding, which Tobia said was basically a great room, a kitchen, and a full bathroom on the first floor, with a second floor mezzanine with a bed.
If the outbuilding were plunked down on an empty lot, could it exist as a stand- alone house? Stiles inquired.
“It is a dwelling unit, I’ll give you that, but what’s being proposed here is only an accessory unit to the Cohome and we would limit it to its connectivity,” responded Tobia.
After some bantering between Vitolo about precisely who was providing pro bono services to whom, the evening ended with a call from Joni Rose Diskint, mother of Nate and Jeremy.
Identifying herself as the mother of a Cohome resident with Down’s syndrome, she hesitated before adding she also is the mother of Nate Diskint, founder of the facility.
“I don’t think any of you are aware of what our lives are like being the parents” of adult children with disabilities, she said.
Board Attorney David Brady advised that she needed to ask a question to proceed. It was suggested the woman could be sworn in as a witness and testify at subsequent hearings.
Ignoring his suggestion, Joni Diskint asked if any board members had a developmentally disabled child. She urged members to be “open minded and compassionate” in their deliberations.
Vitolo thought she had been treated with disrespect, but Brady and board Chairman Steve Pylypchuk countered that she was treated the same as other callers, and that Vitolo knew better than to say otherwise.
Round four is scheduled for March 2022.