LIVINGSTON, NJ – For two years, a Livingston resident complained to the township about a business being illegally operated in a residential neighborhood, and, she asserts, the ordeal took much longer than it needed to because the township was slow to act.
Resident Margie Rieger told TheAlternativePress.com that she first noticed the problem shortly after the property at 184 East Northfield Road was purchased in January 2006. Soon, the resident said she noticed cars going to and from the residence during business hours. Cars were parked in front of her residence, as well as her neighbor’s home. She said she suspected they were employee cars as they would arrive at 9 a.m., leave at 6 p.m., and leave early on Fridays. On the weekends, she said, there were no cars. The business was identified as Stepping Forward Counseling Center.
Rieger said she tried repeatedly to let Livingston Township officials know there was a business being illegally operated at the residence, but, she said, Township Manager Michele Meade would not return her calls, despite continued attempts to reach her during the summer of 2006.
Finally, Rieger said she hired attorney Roger J. Desiderio, who began an investigation into the matter. TheAlternativePress.com obtained copies of letters Desiderio wrote to Meade trying to get the matter resolved. Desiderio said during one conversation, Meade told him the property was zoned for a “residence-based business.” However, Rieger and her attorneys claimed that no one resided in the house, so it did not qualify as a residence-based business.
The matter began to escalate in the summer of 2007, when Rieger said the counseling center began advertising for a summer camp.
She attended multiple township council meetings to ask the council about their knowledge of the camp.
“In May, flags or banners were strung up from the top of the house to the top of the garage and back,” Rieger wrote in a letter to TheAlternativePress.com. “It looked like a carnival. In June, a soccer field, a baseball field, and six multi-colored picnic tables were present.”
Rieger’s attorney wrote a letter to Martin Chiarolanzio, the Livingston’s construction official in charge of zoning, about the business. According to Rieger, she and a tenant at her residence placed multiple calls to Chiarolanzio. She claims that when they called, he said to call the police, as the business being run at the residence was not a zoning issue.
Finally, after being pressured by Rieger’s calls and a letter from her attorney, Chiarolanzio conducted an unannounced visit to 184 East Northfield Road, days before the camp began. Despite the visit, the camp proceeded as scheduled.
According to Rieger, when she called to inquire about the status of Chiarolanzio’s investigation, he again stated that she should call the police.
According to documents obtained by TheAltnernativePress.com, Chiarolanzio did eventually respond. The owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center was issued a summons by Livingston Township on Aug. 1, 2007, (approximately one year after Rieger initially brought the situation to the township’s attention). The summons stated that the business had been issued two warnings weeks earlier.
The owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center pleaded guilty to failing to close down the camp, which resulted in a fine, and the summer camp ended a week early. However, the business remained in operation.
Rieger then visited Assemblyman John McKeon’s office to personally inform him of the conflict. McKeon’s office wrote to the Department of Human Services, calling for an investigation into Stepping Forward Counseling Center’s use of a residence for a business.
Human Services conducted unannounced visits in October and November of 2007 to the outpatient mental facility.
Rieger said she also called the New Jersey Department of Human Services, and was transferred to Alan Carmy of the Department of Mental Health Licensing. Shortly thereafter, Carmy had investigators visit the business while he also reached out to Chiarolanzio for zoning clarification, as Rieger pointed out to him that she lived in an R-3 (residential) zone, but the property in question was issued a Certificate of Continuing Occupancy on June 26, 2006 that was zoned as B (business).
On Oct. 11, 2007, Chiarolanzio faxed a copy of a Certificate of Continuing Occupancy to Carmy’s office. Like the original one Rieger showed to Carmy, this COO was issued on June 26, 2006, as well. In his cover letter, Chiarlonzio wrote, “Here is the COO for 184 E Northfield with the corrected Use Group. The use group is an R-5 not a B as originally listed.”
Then in a letter written on Nov. 11, 2007, Carmy wrote Chiarlonzio, “I am seeking formal clarification regarding the certificate of occupancy that was changed from a ‘B’ Use group to an ‘R-5’ Use group.”Carmy also wrote, “Your formal clarification will assist us in our decision to continue to license Stepping Forward Counseling Center, LLC as an outpatient mental health facility.”
Carmy wrote Chiarlonzio again on Jan. 2, 2008 asking for documentation to clarify the correct zone of the property.
Rieger claims that by the time Carmy asked Chiarolanzio a second time to clarify the sudden change in the zoning, the Stepping Forward Counseling Center’s License had been pulled by the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
Chiarolanzio had written a letter to the owners of Stepping Forward Counseling Center, and told them to close down their business within 30 days. When the business didn’t stop operating, Chiarolanzio issued a “cease and desist” order.
In an email to TheAltnernativePress.com, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Human Services wrote that “DHS’ Office of Licensing (OOL) closed Stepping Forward on 1/28/08, requesting that it cease operations and return its license because it did not have the proper zoning from the township for an outpatient mental health license.”
On March 12, 2008, the owner of Stepping Forward Counseling Center pled guilty to running an illegal business. In a plea agreement, Stepping Forward Counseling Center would not be allowed to operate after March 31, 2008 (nearly two years after Rieger’s first complaint) or advertise the business at the address on East Northfield Road.
“Due to the township’s failure to enforce the ordinances, I had to consult and hire legal representation,” said Rieger. “The cost and the length of time were both financially and physically more than anyone should have to deal with.”
The owner was fined on two of the 21 zoning violations she was charged with, resulting in a $4,000 fine.
A friend of Rieger’s, familiar with the situation, who requested anonymity, stated that they knew the conflict could have been resolved sooner than it was.
“Everybody was just in a world of denial,” the source said of township officials.
“Nobody seemed to see anything wrong, and yet it was right there physically” the source said of the business.
The source also stated that a friend of theirs in law enforcement told him the entire situation could have been resolved “in two months.”
Chiaralanzio and Meade did not respond to requests for comment.