MANCHESTER – The last of the people who called Surf and Stream Campgrounds their home had no choice but to say goodbye to their surroundings. For some, it meant leaving behind more than 30 years of memories.
At the beginning of last year, the Ocean County Commissioners announced plans to purchase what they believed was a seasonal campground as part of its natural lands acquisition program. Government authorities admitted they were surprised when residents appeared at their meeting and disclosed they lived onsite year-round.
The revelation resulted in a delay in the transfer of the property and a holdup of the $7.4 million offer made to Surf and Stream owners. Manchester Township contributed $1.5 million for the purchase of the land.
Ocean County Deputy Director Gary Quinn confirmed the proposed sale finally closed in mid-December 2022. A portion of the seller’s funds is held in escrow until all of the structures on the property are demolished.
Despite approximately ten months of time to find new homes, a number of people stayed until the bitter end. Unfortunately, the search for alternative housing still hasn’t panned out for some.
“Eddie,” 36, asked that only his first name be used to tell his story – admitting his embarrassment in a somewhat shaky voice. Eddie planned to sell the small camper he shared with his school-aged daughter. Unfortunately, the sale fell through, and Eddie’s old home got left behind when he departed Surf and Stream on November 18th.
Eviction proceedings resulted in deadlines and promises that property owners wouldn’t attempt to collect rent campers stopped paying after notice of the sale. Eddie figured he’d find a place for him and his daughter – it still hasn’t happened.
“I think I’m up to paying $700 in apartment application fees and the background checks that go with them,” shared Eddie, who works two jobs. “Some are telling me I don’t make enough money to even qualify to put in an application. Others want three times the rent to get started, and that’s for an $1,800 unit.”
“I keep telling them I can swing it, and they say things are tighter because of COVID,” Eddie continued. “I’m not getting callbacks for any of the houses I’ve tried to get, including for seasonal rentals.”
Recently, Eddie came across a group outside the county’s social services system that said they would pay some of his rent. However, it’s still up to him to find a place.
In the meantime, a trusted babysitter has been kind enough to let Eddie’s daughter live with her. The local school understands the situation, and the young girl remains with her same elementary school friends.
When darkness falls, Eddie searches one of a couple of regular parking lots to pull his sedan in for the night. But he can’t wait for the day he isn’t sleeping in his car or taking advantage of an inexpensive gym membership that allows him to shower daily.
Marie Cicalo and her husband, Anthony, were a bit luckier than some of the other campers. They moved to Surf and Stream because Marie had aspirations of ultimately owning a campground. Marie worked for the property owners until they announced the sale and fired her.
Marie continues to keep track of her former campground neighbors. She knows at least a few have moved in with relatives and others landed apartments. She worries about Eddie and a couple of guys she knows who live in the woods. Marie also expressed her resentment at the number of new squatters who took advantage of a bad situation.
Although the Cicalos were able to leave the campgrounds and purchase a one-family home, Marie felt a deep commitment to her neighbors. Saying she understood the owners had a right to sell, Marie still hoped they would do something for the people who needed to leave. As a result, Marie became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking relocation funds on behalf of those who needed assistance.
Toms River Attorney Kevin Starkey took on the plight of the dislocated residents at no cost to them. An Ocean County judge directed Starkey to file his claims with the Department of Consumer Affairs, subsequently transferred to the Office of Administrative Law. A ruling remains pending.
Barry Bielat, spokesperson for Surf and Stream, submits the property owners have already helped what he calls the campers. He said that only three or four actually asked for assistance. Between money not paid during the COVID rental moratorium and notice of the sale, Bielat estimated he and his partners lost over $1 million in back rent and utilities. He claims they received less than $20,000 in COVID relief funds.
“Approximately 130 campers were evicted for non-payment,” said Bielat. “We have not gone after back rent and gave all campers the opportunity to remove their RVs with approximately 60 left for us to remove.”
Visitors will one day come to appreciate the open space preserved for recreational enjoyment. It remains home to an assortment of colorful ducks, geese, and other splendid creatures of nature.