A controversial ordinance, described by a lawyer as the most misunderstood ordinance he ever saw dealing with private encroachments onto township-owned property, brought a packed crowd to this week’s Township Committee meeting.
The ordinance was eventually unanimously approved by the governing body.
The Township Committee was holding the final public hearing on an ordinance that would allow residents to apply for a Revocable License to permit an encroachment onto township properties or right-of-ways, which would also make the township harmless from any injury or damage caused by the encroachment.
Some residents called the ordinance a “hot button issue” and just “a money grab” while township officials maintained it is a reasonable solution to a persistent problem.
“This is the most misunderstood ordinance I have even seen,” Township Attorney Gene Anthony said, citing recent postings in newspapers and on social media critical of the ordinance.
He said that, under the current ordinance, anyone encroaching on township property can either receive consistent fines or have to remove the problem. He said the fines can go on and on until the case is finally heard in state Superior Court, which is costly to the township.
“This ordinance gives you a third options (to keep the encroachment by getting the license) but you do not have to take the agreement. It gives you a third option to remove the problem. And this is a real problem and one the township can’t afford to ignore,” he said.
Examples of encroachments are if a fence; small temporary structure without a foundation, like a shed; or a retaining wall on placed on township-owned properties. These are considered minor encroachments under the ordinance. Structures like swimming pools, patios and decks placed on township properties are considered major encroachments.
Under the ordinance, the township could grant a property owner a Revocable License allowing for the encroachment as long as it is not a significant impairment to the township’s use of its property, is not a safety hazard, and satisfies certain standards. Items, such as mail boxes, driveways to the street, or vegetation are not considered to be encroachments.
The license is revocable if the township needs the right-of-way or property to put in something like a sidewalk or curbs.
For a minor encroachment license, a resident would have to pay a one-time fee of $150 to cover legal and filing costs. A major encroachment would require the same $150 fee but also a $300 to $500 annual fee, depending on the size of the encroachment.
Anthony cited an example of a condominium complex that build a recreation area, with fire pits and tiki bars, on township property as an example of a major encroachment. Instead of removing the recreation area or paying fines, there would be a third option of obtaining the license.
He said the ordinance is similar to ones found in other towns and it creates an agreement without any litigation involved. He said it will probably affect less than one percent of the entire township, especially since it involves only township-owned property. And it will not affect any properties in Ocean Grove because all easements and right-of-ways there are owned by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, not the township.
He said if encroachments occur on state Green Acres property then the township may have to pay back any grants it received.
Many residents called the ordinance “a fence tax” and that the township was just looking for revenue.
Ocean Grove-based attorney James Hundley said he questions the wisdom and motive behind the ordinance.
“The question is why is it needed and the answer is to generate money,” he said to applause.
Anthony and other governing body members said that is not the case.
“The township doesn’t look around for encroachments but these problems are usually brought to our attention through permits. Without the $150 fee to cover costs then other taxpayers are subsidizing those seeking agreements,” he said.
“This is not a money grab. How much money we would make is pretty insignificant,” Committeeman Eric Houghtaling said.
“Nobody is going around and looking for these things and this is not designed to hurt anybody. This is a problem with no way out and now we are giving you an option,” he said.
And Committeeman Michael Brantley agreed.
“It’s not like we are going out and looking for things. If it is brought to our attention then you have an option. We can always try to make it better and (the ordinance) can be amended. But we need to do something now,” he said.
But residents remained unconvinced.
“It’s our responsibility so why have an ordinance? I see this as a way to make money. You should vote no- this is our problem. You should either table it or vote no- cut and dry,” resident Will Featherman said.
Resident James Allen said that code enforcement officials on the federal, state or local levels can become like “code Nazis.”
Allen, who works in an area Home Depot, said he had lots of people coming in after Superstorm Sandy and has heard a lot of horror stories about code enforcement.
“Small people with a lot of power can make people’s lives hell,” he said.
Some residents said the ordinance needs to be improved and better clarified and that it should be tabled and looked at again.
Local realtor Cindy Nelson said the ordinance only helps to devaluate properties in the area.
“Don’t build or live in Neptune- that is the message you are sending out. Vote no, we do not want the ordinance,” she said.
Resident Warren Lapp said this has been a “hot button” issue for some time among residents.
“It seems that this is spinning out of control and that nothing is being done to nip it in the bud. You should have been more proactive on the issue,” he said.