MANCHESTER – The impending sale of the Surf and Stream Campgrounds has created an unsettling sense of déjà vu for Kaitlyn Luldam, a 32-year-old single mom.
Ludlam, her eight-year-old twins and thirteen-year-old son still live in the camper they moved into three years ago. However, it’s just a matter of time until the family of four and their dog return to a place they’ve been before.
“We were homeless before we moved here,” said Ludlam. “We were placed in one of those motels in Seaside and it was terrible.”
The young mother said she cleans houses for a living and that she’s frantically looked for a place to relocate her family. Rents are not only expensive, but landlords want proof of three months affordability.
“In order to get help from the state, they want you to lose everything,” Ludlam claimed. “They want you to be homeless, and with no job.”
As Ludlam awaits her final eviction proceeding, a single father in the community knows he needs to be out by November 1. Edward Babson’s already negotiated the date as part of the removal process.
Babson moved into Surf and Stream nine years ago, a month before the birth of his daughter, Corrine. Babson works for a company that does commercial cleaning and began looking for a new place when he first heard the owners sold the property to the County of Ocean.
“I’m on a significant number of lists around the Toms River area and Bayville,” shared Babson. “I’ve had to do four background checks which are $50 apiece or I wouldn’t even be put on the lists.”
At a minimum, rents start from $1,600 monthly, an increase of $1,000 over campground site fees. One apartment complex manager told Babson he might get lucky and find something available in October. Another informed the concerned dad he was #57 on the list.
Babson, who has sole custody of Corrine, finds himself in a similar position to Ludlam. Others with children in the community share their same concern.
While many people have managed to leave Surf and Stream, some of those left behind include the sick and elderly. The select few who have ignored eviction notices may not realize the seriousness of their lack of response.
Toms River attorney Kevin Starkey took up the case of the displaced residents and provided them with pro bono representation. Starkey started by asking Surf and Stream owners for relocation assistance.
Approximately 160 people claimed they received less than 60 days’ notice to remove their property by May 23, 2022. Barry Bielat, Managing Member and spokesperson for the campgrounds, has maintained from the time he asked Ocean County to buy the property that no one lives there full-time. Bielat referred to those who consider themselves tenants as campers in a place intended for seasonal trailer hook-ups.
Riverside at Manchester, LLC, represented by Attorney Christopher Dasti, started eviction proceedings against residents who refused to leave the campgrounds after they were advised Surf and Stream planned to sell the property. Starkey subsequently filed a lawsuit on behalf of Marie Cicalo individually and other similarly situated tenants of the Surf & Stream Campgrounds. Cicalo resides at the campgrounds and once helped manage the property and store.
Judge Francis R. Hodgson, Jr. denied the request to put the eviction proceedings on hold in July.
As part of the initial court ruling, Hodgson suggested the affected parties apply to the County of Ocean for relocation assistance benefits. The County denied those benefits. That resulted in an appeal to the Department of Community Affairs (“DCA”). Cicalo’s attorney asked the court once again to stop the evictions until the DCA ruled on the appeal.
“Once the tenants are either moved out or forced out by the eviction process, they really lose the benefit of any relocation assistance benefits,” Starkey argued. “This would come in the form of assistance by the county for guidance, assistance to the tenants in finding housing, suitable replacement housing and financial benefits to assist them in paying their expenses to move out.”
Hodgins once again denied the request to put a stay on eviction proceedings last week. Meanwhile, Cicalo and some of the others have already had their day in landlord/tenant court. Cicalo is one of the lucky ones who’s found a place to live.
Another piece of the litigation remains in place despite the continuation of the eviction proceedings for the remaining occupants of Surf and Stream. Starkey continues to argue that the county should provide some relocation assistance since they’re purchasing the Surf and Stream property.
“Equating the county government purchasing property is not the same as a government agency taking property,” said Laura M. Benson, Assistant County Counsel. “…Not every taking is a condemnation ….there are specific legal obligations associated with each of those words and definitions.”
Benson said that Surf and Stream’s owners approached the county and offered the opportunity to purchase the property. The fact that it wasn’t condemned mattered when it came to financial assistance.
As it now stands, Bielat said there are still approximately 100 camping sites still occupied at Surf and Stream. The owner said he hasn’t received any money for site fees and utilities in some time and claimed the company’s lost out on more than $500,000 in revenue.
Judgments entered in a landlord/tenant court call for October 1 or November 1 removals. They all come with a promise from Surf and Stream.
“We have not gone after anyone for back rent or filed a lien on anyone who vacates,” Bielat said. “We are not looking to hurt anyone.”
As Starkey argued in court that the remaining tenants were unable to find suitable relocation housing on their own, he made a point that literally hit home.
“Many of them may well end up at the county doorstep anyway,” suggested Sharkey. “As homeless people.”
Ocean County Commissioner Deputy Director Virginia “Ginny” Haines announced months ago of the county’s intention to buy the property for $7.4 million with funds from the Natural Lands Trust Fund and maintain it as open space. Manchester Township is expected to contribute $1.5 million dollars.