CHATHAM, NJ - Carmela Sagendorf, an 83-year-old resident of River Road, filed a civil lawsuit in Morris County Superior Court on Friday, April 3, naming Chatham Township as the defendant in her opposition to naming 476-490 River Road as a site for affordable housing.

The civil lawsuit was predicted last month by Chatham Township residents and its mayor, Michael Kelly, at a "Coffee with the Mayor" meeting on March 7 at which 60 residents, including Sagendorf, voiced their opposition to the selection of the River Road site.

In her 135-page "Complaint in Lieu of Prerogative Writs", Sagendorf's attorney, John J. Delaney Jr., states that Chatham Township ignored Gov. Phil Murphy's Executive Order No. 103 when it held its March 12 meeting in which it named the River Road site as part of its court settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center.

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Sagendorf, because of her age, was unable to attend the meeting for safety reasons due to the Coronavirus pandemic. In the March 12 meeting that lasted more than five hours and ended past 12:30 a.m., the committee voted to name River Road as the site for the affordable housing.

The civil lawsuit also cites "endangered and/or threatened species" that live in the River Road neighborhood, and the environmental concerns associated with building on the "steep slope" that is in direct violation of the township's Master Plan.

Sagendorf has published a brochure asking for help in her cause and tells her story. See below.

Carmela Sagendorf: The Plaintiff vs. the Township of Chatham

My name is Carmela Sagendorf and I have lived at 472 River Road in Chatham Township for 60 years, having moved in May 1960 from Summit with my late husband, Ed, and our two toddler sons.

Back then River Road was unpaved, and like today, there were no sewers or sidewalks. Yet River Road had a certain appeal that made life here special to those of us who formed the neighborhood. And though not too much has changed since then, life is still special on River Road.

The Sagendorf’s were living here before Chatham Township became “the place to live”, yet today I feel like an interloper. In some ways, River Road is the forgotten stepchild of Chatham Township. Forgotten, that is, until the powers that be decided that our neighborhood would be the ideal place to build at least 59 two- and three-bedroom apartment units. Denying the public due process and opportunities to debate this site, the Township Committee negotiated their “deal” in private without undertaking studies regarding the viability, the environmental impact, or the resulting effect it would have on property values. Part of the Township Committee’s reasoning is “it would have minimal impact on neighborhood character” in our single-family residential neighborhood. Really? Many of us believe their decision was fueled on the assumption that we, on River Road, would offer the least resistance to their irresponsible conclusion. Their first choice to build these units at the Municipal Complex on Meyersville Road was equally ill-advised. They quickly realized that mistake but still failed to investigate less environmentally sensitive and more suitable locations, for example, closer to Hickory Tree where the terrain is flat, and where sewers, sidewalks and shopping exist. Appropriate infrastructure for apartment units! And believe it or not, this is all notwithstanding that such suitable alternatives were on the market as recently as last year and remain available!

The Township Committee’s decision was so desperate, arrogant and audacious that their negotiated settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) included properties they didn’t own (and still do not own)—properties they threatened to acquire through “condemnation” or “eminent domain.” This would have included a resident-owned and occupied property at 464 River Road (Lot 74) and sewer easements on Huron Drive (Lots 25 and 26). How offensive! Publicly shamed at its March 12 meeting, the Township Committee, in a 3-1 vote, removed the “condemnation” language from their settlement agreement with the FSHC in the event they were unsuccessful with a willful sale from the various property owners. And if they cannot get more property surrounding its Lot 71 on River Road, they’re committed to building a 5-story apartment building there—the first of its kind in Chatham Township! All this, too, without consideration to its volunteer fire department which would be expected to protect it and the life hazards it will bring!

This will not go unanswered! We’re organized and energized!

The land to be developed is part of a significant wildlife corridor that is known to be used by threatened and endangered species including a bobcat (https://youtu.be/4ZVDLD6xuy0). The underlying geology on the ridge consists of fractured rock that causes seasonal water runoff and flooding along River Road. Given the steep slopes, the erosion issues and lack of existing sewer infrastructure (the construction of which will cost millions of dollars), the cost to Chatham Township taxpayers to develop on River Road would be much higher than alternative sites. Consequently, my River Road neighbors, together with many concerned and sympathetic residents in the Highlands and beyond, have united in solidarity to challenge the Township Committee’s impulsive and irresponsible action. To date, with the financial assistance of 40 families, we have engaged a land use attorney, a planner, and civil and environmental engineers to represent the interests of our neighborhood and community. As the plaintiff in this matter, I don’t take suing the township lightly because the expense of litigation is not something I can handle alone. Neighbors, friends and family, passionate for our strife have given generously to our legal fund, but with litigation comes unknowns like “how much will it cost?” and “are the funds we have enough?” Well, we’re just getting started and are fighting for the right to have a voice. This year it’s our voice. Another year it might be your voice that needs to be heard. Given that Chatham Township faces additional affordable housing obligations in the next several years, permitting our elected officials to haphazardly select sites without proper notice, due diligence or public discourse, in an area surrounded by single-family homes, in a manner inconsistent with the Township’s Master Plan and under threat of condemnation is in no resident’s interest! Just because you may not live on River Road, doesn’t mean you’re not affected by this issue. Indeed, you are. We’ve assembled a great group to defend us, but now we need you to join our team!

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

We are asking you to consider a monetary donation to our legal fund. We know, too, this request comes at a tough time as we’re dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but this housing issue will outlast the coronavirus. Contributions to date have ranged from $100 to $5,000. We’re looking to collect as much possible and will return any unused funds to donors as a percentage of final expenses. We will also be reporting finances to you, our stakeholders.

You may donate by check, Venmo or PayPal. Contributions by check (made out to Gary Sagendorf) may be sent to our treasurer: Lucille Plantemoli, 436 River Road, Chatham, NJ 07928. You may also use Venmo (@emerson1988) or PayPal (gary@sagendorf.net).

In addition, consider attending upcoming Planning Board and Township Committee meetings on this topic. You’re also encouraged to e-mail the Township Committee (committee@chathamtownship.org) to voice your objections.

Finally, I extend my heartfelt appreciation for your anticipated support and consideration and hope you and your family stay healthy and safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Thank you!

-Carmela Sagendorf

Other Resources:

Join us on Facebook: Chatham Residents for Responsible Planning

https://www.facebook.com/groups/chatham.residents.for.responsible.planning/

Follow Developments on the Township Website. The changing situation is updated here:

https://www.chathamtownship-nj.gov/government/affordable-housing Bobcat Sightings (video): https://youtu.be/4ZVDLD6xuy0