New Jersey is bloated with hundreds of little fiefdoms.
Local governments allow red tape to rule the day, and they forget they’re supposed to serve their constituents.
They display no common sense.
Nancy Wells, 57, of Hasbrouck Heights has been drowning in deep bureaucracy for nearly two years.
Her story is simple. She’s been the owner of a two-family home in the 1.5-square-mile, 12,000 resident borough since 1996, when she bought the property with her then-husband. All she wants to do is sell her two-family home as the two-family home it’s been since it was built in 1949.
But the borough won’t let her, saying she lacks the necessary documents to prove her home is a two-family residence.
Why? There was a fire at the municipal building in 1999, and town officials told Wells decades of building permits were destroyed, she said. Among them, she noted, were documents that would prove the home was a two-family and grandfathered in when the area was rezoned for one-families.
And even though the home has always had two entrances, two kitchens, two electric meters, two gas meters and that according to county tax rolls, the home has always been a two-family home and has always been taxed as a two-family home, the zoning board won’t listen to reason.
Or common sense.
Or the 13 long-time local residents who always knew the home as a two-family and put in writing that they’re just fine if it remains a two-family.
“I made an investment in a two-family so I’d like to get my two-family investment back,” Wells said. “Selling as a one-family downgrades the value of the house.”
It all started when Wells put her home on the market in April 2015.
Wells’ real estate agent went to borough hall and spoke to Dorothy Bernice of the borough’s planning board to confirm the property was a two-family.
Bernice looked in a book and confirmed to the real estate agent it was a non-conforming two-family, according to an affidavit later filed with the Superior Court in Bergen County as part of Wells’ lawsuit against the borough. Even though the street later became a single family zone, older two-families were grandfathered in, the real estate agent said she was told.
So the house went on the market, and it sold for the full price that same day.
But while the sale was in attorney review, according to the affidavit, the real estate agent got a call from Bernice’s boss, Nicholas Melfi, who serves as the borough’s construction code and zoning enforcement officer.
He said Wells’ home was not a two-family and that Bernice made a mistake.
“I asked, ‘How can that be since she looked it up in the book while I was standing there,'” the agent’s affadavit said. “He told me he would not give a Certificate of Occupancy…”
The deal was dead, and Wells had to withdraw the listing.
What followed was a battle that’s isn’t over yet.
ASKING FOR REASON
Wells said she called Melfi, the zoning official, several times, but he never returned her calls.
So she filed an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request on May 18, 2015, requesting all tax records, deeds, permits and all documents related to the history of the home.
Wells followed up with the clerk, Rose Marie Sees.
“She told me that she was only allowed to give me what the borough thinks I need to see,” Wells said. “When I went back to the borough, Rose Marie Sees told me that my public records were missing.”
Wells asked an attorney to write a letter to Sees, requesting the records. The next day, Wells received a call saying the records were ready to be picked up.
“The only records the borough made available to me were the tax records,” Wells said.
She was given Property Record Cards, which the borough said were not destroyed in the fire. It identifies the home as a mother/daughter.
“I asked about the building records and was told no, I can’t have them,” Wells said.
The next day, Wells said, she contacted the county tax assessor, George Reggo.
“George pulled the file up on his computer and said, ‘Yes, this is a two-family,'” Wells said. “I asked, ‘Are you sure?'”
She said Reggo pulled the files and showed her the paperwork.
“He asked, ‘Are you going to be selling?’ I said yes. George said, ‘You purchased the home as a two-family and you can sell it as a two-family,'” Wells said.
No one at the borough wanted to hear it, so Wells took them to court.
During the proceedings, the borough was suddenly able to present a certificate of occupancy (CO) from 1996, when Wells purchased the house. It didn’t have COs from other years, saying they were all destroyed in the fire, Wells said.
“I don’t know how they came up with only that one in thin air,” Wells said. “If all the records burned, how is that CO the only paperwork that’s been saved?”
She believes the CO, which says the home is a one-family, is a fake.
Wells told the judge the document wasn’t handed over with her OPRA request and that she was told all her documents were destroyed.
The judge said she had to go back to the borough’s zoning board, which she did.
But, Wells said, zoning board attorney Joe Rotolo told her the board couldn’t help because Wells couldn’t produce any building permits — the building permits that were lost in the 1999 fire.
“I would have to spend lots of money on a land-use planner and show that it will not impact the neighborhood,” Wells said.
That’s when she asked her neighbors to sign a petition to allow the two-family to remain a two-family.
They all signed, records show, but the board still said no.
“All the people on the street that have been here the longest all said that it is a two-family,” Wells said. “The zoning board said they don’t care about the tax records. All Property Record Cards show that it was built as a two-family. It has maintained the two-family status for the last 50 years.”
While the zoning board had no documents to prove it is not a two-family, it said the burden of proof was on the homeowner to prove that it was.
After three zoning meetings, Wells’ requests were denied. The board voted down Wells’ request.
With so many borough employees involved, we reached out to Mayor Jack DeLorenzo to see if he could cut through the red tape and help this resident.
After leaving several phone messages and sending several emails, DeLorenzo replied.
“I’m sure you are aware the matter is under litigation,” he said, promising to speak to the borough’s attorney. “We all want this situation rectified.”
More time passed, and we didn’t hear anything, so we left more messages for the mayor.
Finally, the borough attorney said Wells had 45 days after the board’s decision to appeal. Time would run out later this week, on Jan. 26.
“Until such time, the Borough stands on the decision of the Superior Court dated Aug. 29, 2016 and the decision of the Board of Adjustment,” attorney Ralph Chandless Jr. said.
Wells feels she’s left with no alternative but to sell her home as a one-family and lose money because the new owner couldn’t legally rent out the upstairs apartment.
“They claim the borough’s paperwork was burned in the fire, but no homeowners were ever notified of that fact,” Wells said. “They can easily do this to the next person if they don’t want someone to sell their home as a two-family.”
“It’s very unfair,” she added. “I’m being penalized for something the borough should responsible for.”
We don’t get it, either. Come on, Hasbrouck Heights. What gives?
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.