By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
VENTNOR – A local resident has given credence to the phrase “Not in my Backyard” by stepping forward to prevent the sale of a Suffolk Avenue triplex to the Hansen Foundation, which had plans to turn it into a sober living home.
Sean Gibbs, whose family owns a house on Surrey Avenue that shares the rear property line with the multi-family dwelling, said he drove to the owners’ home in Cape May the day after the Oct. 28, 2019 Planning Board meeting to offer to purchase the home if the owners could get out of their agreement of sale with the Hansen Foundation.
The property owners, Steven and Christine Nelson of Cape May, were before the Planning Board in October to obtain the Certificate of Non-conformity needed to sell their property at 211 N. Suffolk Ave. to the Hansen Foundation. They said they wanted to sell the property to help an aging family member who is in a nursing home, and that the property had been on the market for a while before the Hansen Foundation agreed to buy it.
However, they were unable to prove at that meeting that the building had been used as a triplex before a 1947 law that outlawed multi-family uses in a single-family residential zone and withdrew their application.
The three-story building contains three units with two, three and four bedrooms.
“We have a vested interest in Ventnor,” Gibbs told the board at the Jan. 28 meeting. “It’s our haven.”
He said it was important to protect his family’s investment, “which was more important than money.”
During the October meeting third-floor tenant Shaun Smith told the board that the foundation offered him $2,000 to vacate the premises.
Gibbs said that the Smiths still live on the third floor, but tenants on the second floor moved out after receiving the foundation’s request to vacate the building. No one is currently living on the first floor, he said.
The Hansen Foundation owns and operates several sober living homes in Ventnor and Atlantic City. Sober living homes are considered safe havens or transitional housing for those who have already completed addiction rehabilitation and before they can live on their own. Sober living homes provide those in recovery with structure, teach them independent living skills and provide continued treatment that can lead to long-lasting sobriety. It also operates Enlightened Café, which provides those in recovery with jobs and patrons with organic eating options. The Hansen Foundation also operates a recovery center in Atlantic City.
Attempts to reach sober living home operator Jennifer Hansen for comment were unsuccessful.
In October, Smith said the foundation had plans to house 18-36 people who are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. He said the neighborhood could not absorb the density proposed. Other residents said having a sober living home in the neighborhood would negatively affect their property values.
At the time, Planning Board Chairman Jay Cooke said the board was limited to hearing testimony about the past use of the property as a triplex and not any future use.
Cooke suggested the only way to prevent a sober living home from being established in their neighborhood, would be for residents to get together and purchase it.
Gibbs did just that, and on Jan. 28 went before the board to ask for the Certificate of Non-conformity to continue operating it as a multi-family residence. He said he wants to fix it up and maintain it as an investment.
Gibbs provided the required documentation from the Polk Directory proving the property was a triplex before 1947. Several residents who live in the neighborhood also testified the building has been a triplex going back as far as the 1970s.
Before the board voted unanimously to grant Gibbs the Certificate of Non-conformity, several residents thanked him for stepping up to protect the neighborhood.
One resident testified that he was prepared to sell his property if the foundation was successful in turning the property into a sober living home.
When casting his vote, Commissioner Lance Landgraf said he voiced the governing body’s concerns during the October meeting about overpopulation as a result of group homes, lamenting there is not much the city can do to prevent them.
The New Jersey Department of Community Affairs regulates cooperative sober living homes and requires operators to obtain a Class F rooming and boarding license, noting they provide a valuable service to those in recovery.
Landgraf said he met with state officials about the issue, but the meeting “was a waste of my time,” he said.
“I don’t know if we can stop it, but we will try,” Landgraf said about the proliferation of sober living homes in the Downbeach area.
“We have no ammunition to combat these things,” Cooke said. “It’s up to the community to control it.”