Editor's note: Due to the overwhelming response of TAPinto Franklin/Somerset readers we decided to take a closer look at the life of Patrice James who filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Township of Franklin earlier this year.
SOMERSET, NJ - Patrice James’ plan was simple. She wanted to move somewhere that had plenty of space for her growing family, somewhere her children could play in the sun. Living in Brooklyn was claustrophobic. She had a young daughter and would soon become pregnant with her son. City life wouldn’t offer them the outdoor adventures she remembers so fondly from her own childhood.
So she decided on Franklin Township. She bought land and work began in 2010 on a house with enough space for her growing family.
She said things went smoothly until she met township officials in person. James, who is black, claims in a lawsuit that the town discriminated against her because of her race.
The lawsuit, which was recently moved to federal district court in Newark, names the township and a number of its officials as defendants. It alleges they deliberately delayed issuing her a certificate of occupancy, issued her exorbitant fines and harassed her and her family.
Citing the pending litigation, Township Manager Robert Vornlocker declined to comment on the matter.
According to James, in August of 2010, the stop-work orders from the township started rolling in.
“After the first six months, this was starting to become a problem,” she said. “It’s still not getting where it should be, so I had to incur the cost of hiring someone to do the legwork with me.”
Originally slotted to be finished in 2011, construction wasn’t complete until February 2012.
After giving up her apartment in 2010, she moved in with her sister. She thought it would be a few months. That she would only stay until construction was finished.
“I’m living in my sister's house for two years, and at this point, she has her kids and I have my second one and we’re sharing a room because it’s a two-bedroom apartment,” James said.
With work finished, she needed a certificate of occupancy – a document provided by the town that proves a property was constructed in accordance with local and state regulations – which would allow her to move into the house legally. It would be more than a year before she received the document.
As the third year living with her sister approached, James began to feel uneasy.
“The whole perspective of my life changed,” she said. “Now I am here at the mercy of people I have been helping my whole life all because of this town.”
Throughout the time her certificate of occupancy languished in bureaucratic limbo, thieves repeatedly broke into the empty house.
James had a neighbor park a car in the driveway to make it look like someone lived there. It briefly helped, but eventually, the break-ins continued.
“They stole every piece of copper in there,” she said.
By August 2013, she’d had enough. She couldn’t afford another apartment and didn’t know how long she would need it even if she could. She wrote a letter to the town declaring a hardship and moved into the house on Sinclair Boulevard.
The township issued her a certificate of occupancy that September.
But her troubles continued.
She still worked in New York. Before she built the house, she planned to transfer to an office in Newark. But by the time she moved to Franklin, she was stuck in New York.
“I really moved over here hoping my company would transfer me but everything took so long that all the opportunities to transfer were gone before I could move,” she said.
Now bound to commuting to the city, she had to leave early in the morning and wouldn’t get home until late in the evening, so James hired a live-in babysitter.
Shortly after getting her certificate of occupancy, the babysitter told her people would come to the door and ask questions about who lived in the house. She said they never identified themselves. James said she also started to notice tire tracks on her property and township vehicles regularly parked in her driveway and near her house.
“Everybody is uncomfortable because I don’t know who it is coming in the yard,” she said.
Everything changed for her when she was awoken by a strong smell of burning rubber in the middle of the night.
James was in the house with her mother, aunt, the babysitter and the two children at the time. Everyone woke up. She began checking every room, believing there was a fire. She found nothing except footprints in the grass under the windows that she says resembled someone turning back and forth, spraying something at the house.
"When it dawned on me that someone was spraying my house, I felt like they were trying to treat me and my family like some sort of pests," she said.
Then, her family began to have health issues that she attributes to the incident.
“About a week later, one by one, especially the kids, we started having problems,” she said.
James later called the township, the county and her neighbors to see if anyone was spraying chemicals or doing other work in the area that could explain the smell. After not finding an explanation for the incident, and calling the police – whose presence in the area afterward slowed the unannounced visits.
“That was the one time I questioned myself, like this can’t be possible,” she said.
James installed security cameras, motion-activated lights and alarms throughout her home. She turned the house into a fortress.
“I have lights. I have alarms. It's like a bunker and it’s absolutely ridiculous that anybody has to live like that,” she said.
James says she moved to Franklin so her kids could “freely move around and play outside without fear, now the fear is actually in my house.”
With what James calls harassment from township employees coming onto her property without notice, she worries for the safety of her children.
“I don’t let them play in the front yard unless we’re all sitting there watching them,” she said. “I’m afraid. I’ve had people come in the parking lot videotaping us.”
James says she was advised that inquiries were being made on the location of her kids and which schools they were assigned to.
“That's when the flags really went up because now you're going after my kids," she said. "Now the whole dynamics are changing. The kids must be monitored in a different manner they cannot be left alone."
James feels her concern for her children is robbing them of essential parts of their childhood.
“I left Brooklyn for a reason and it was to give the kids an opportunity and a better way of seeing life,” she said. “I feel that all of that has been smothered or taken away from me because of all of this stuff that I have to deal with.”
“I wasn’t afraid like this in New York.”
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