OCEAN COUNTY – Former residents of the now-defunct Surf and Stream Campgrounds are suing the County of Ocean, alleging that the County failed to provide them with relocation assistance when they were evicted last fall. If the residents succeed in their lawsuit, it could cost the County at least an estimated $25,000 per tenant unit.
Several Surf and Stream community members attended the January 19, 2022, Ocean County Commissioners’ meeting, where the County announced its purchase of the campground for $7.4 million as open space. The commissioners told residents who expressed concerns about displacement that the seller had represented the campground as seasonal only.
Despite being named a “campground,” the lawsuit alleges that Surf and Stream operated as a mobile home park, with tenants living in individually owned trailer residences. As of January 2022, approximately 100 rentals were occupied by around 160 full-time, year-round residents who paid an average of $675 per month.
Six of the 47 individuals named plaintiffs in the lawsuit said they called Surf and Stream their home for more than a decade, further underscoring the long-term nature of their residency. Among those affected were veterans, seniors on fixed incomes, families with single parents, and individuals with physical and mental disabilities.
According to court documents, the tenants were advised by Ocean County representatives to address their concerns with the property seller, claiming the County had no involvement in their potential displacement. However, the lawsuit contends that this statement was inaccurate and references a memo from a county employee, suggesting that relocation assistance could indeed be a pertinent consideration.
Toms River attorney Kevin Starkey, who represents the displaced residents, said his clients were deprived of a number of benefits due to them under the NJ Relocation Assistance Act.
State law requires relocation assistance to residents who are displaced due to government action. Some available benefits include help finding replacement housing, coverage of moving expenses, rental assistance, and the preparation of an approved relocation assistance plan.
“Ocean County created this problem by requiring the removal of our clients from their homes and then refusing to give them any relocation assistance,” said Starkey. When the government forces the relocation of people from their homes, state law obligates the government to help them find suitable replacement housing.”
“Because our clients didn’t get any assistance from the county, many of them are now homeless or living in substandard conditions,” Starkey continued. “That’s just wrong. We intend to force the County to honor its legal obligations to our clients.”
This is not the first time Surf and Stream residents have gone to court seeking help. When the Superior Court judge denied their request to temporarily stop their eviction on July 12, 2022, he also ruled that the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) was the proper forum to determine their eligibility for relocation assistance.
Attorneys for Ocean County argued that a Monmouth County matter referenced in the proceedings did not apply because it involved providing rental assistance to residents whose homes were taken by eminent domain. The judge warned that relocation benefits could be “substantial,” estimating a cost of $25,000 for each of the tenant units in Surf and Stream, based on payments made in the case in Monmouth County.
The Office of Administrative Law judge, who heard court filings in the DCA matter, determined that state law “does not require the use of eminent domain by a government entity before relocation assistance is available.”
“I conclude that the Relocation Assistance Law and Relocation Assistance Act are applicable because the County is a publicly funded entity and the contract to purchase the Surf & Stream Campground is the direct cause of the petitioner’s vacating the campground,” reads the ruling adopted by the Commissioner of the DCA on June 20, 2023. “Further, the County shall not be relieved of its obligations to provide payments and benefits as provided by requiring Riverside, the owner, to be free of tenants prior to the sale.”
Time has passed for the County to appeal the ruling, which Starkey contends makes it legally binding on the government entity.
The 26-page complaint filed on behalf of the 47 displaced residents provides a sprinkling of information on their challenges since they first learned they needed to find new homes up to the present day. An elderly couple with health issues is among those named and now lives in an outdoor tent encampment in Toms River.
“Ocean County is the only one of New Jersey’s 21 counties that does not have a transitional housing facility,” Starkey reminded in the papers filed with the court. “A place where those experiencing homelessness could stay temporarily while trying to get back on their feet and find more permanent housing.”
In addition to seeking relocation assistance benefits, the displaced residents also seek damages because of their “forced homelessness or habitation in substandard housing since their eviction and the deprivation of their constitutional and statutory rights.”