Spurred by a fellow resident who spoke out at a Brick council meeting two weeks ago about crime and drugs in the Maple Leaf Park condominium complex off Herbertsville Road, a large group of residents from the neighborhood came to Tuesday night’s meeting to reiterate a call for the township council to take action.
When they got up to speak, however, they were confronted by the complex’s property manager, board president and board attorney, who defended their management of the development and said they have improved it over the last several years.
What resulted was a clash between the two groups that remained mainly civil, but highlighted deep differences in the perspectives of some residents who claim that management has looked the other way as crime has swept through the complex and board members who say they are working to make the area better but can only do so much.
“The entire Herbertsville section is under siege from a cancer that has spread over the last ten years,” said Gerry Decicco, who lives on Windcrest Court, a street made up of single-family homes which backs up to the complex.
Homeowners from Maple Lead Park, one-by-one, went on to describe non-working security cameras, men drinking in public spaces during the day, drug activity and the difficult decision they are often faced with: calling the police or staying silent in order to avoid risking retaliation.
But Myron Kozak, the development’s property manager for three years, defended his company’s actions and said he has worked on crime issues over the past several years. Kozak said crime has been reduced in recent years, a statement that elicited some grumbles from residents in the audience.
“When we came to Maple Leaf Park, there was a lot of drug activity,” Kozak admitted, but said he installed $300,000 worth of security cameras. “Things don’t change overnight. Drug activity is down to a minimum from when we took over.”
Kozak also touted an after-school homework help program for children and other activities in the complex’s clubhouse as proof that Maple Leaf Park was being improved.
But residents and some council members pressed Kozak – who came with an attorney who introduced him before he spoke publicly – on the crime issues. Eventually, Kozak was forced to admit that most of the complex’s cameras had not worked in about three months due to a lightning strike, the complex’s recording capability had been diminished and there is no one monitoring video feeds during the overnight hours. Private security patrols were eliminated after management found some of the security guards sleeping in their cars rather than working.
Two residents who spoke accused Kozak of also running a crime-plagued condominium complex in Lakewood.
“I have been contacted in upwards of 23 different residents of yours echoing the same problems Mr. Cancel echoed at the last meeting,” said Councilwoman Marianna Pontoriero, referring to James Cancel, the man who stood up and addressed the council at the Oct. 8 meeting.
“It doesn’t do you much good to know about the problem the day after it happens when our police can be there in a few minutes,” she said, referring to the lack of staff monitoring the security cameras. “If you don’t have someone monitoring those cameras 24 hours a day, how are you going to alleviate the crime that’s going on now?” she asked Kozak.
Township Promises Action
Pontoriero, an attorney who chairs the governing body’s public safety committee, said since Cancel brought up the issues in the complex earlier this month, she has been researching numerous potential ordinance additions and changes, including so-called “animal house” and “drug den” ordinances that have been used in other municipalities to crack down on landlords whose tenants cause trouble.
“I drove through the community four separate times and was scared driving through,” said Pontoriero.
Council President Susan Lydecker said the land use committee, which she chairs, has met with the police chief and other township officials to put together a plan of action.
“The more voices we have in the dialogue … the more it brings to the table,” said Councilwoman Andrea Zapcic, who reported a “productive meeting” was held with the township’s construction code official on Maple Leaf Park.
The residents who spoke asked for a number of actions to be taken by the township, including cracking down on absentee landlords, enforcing township codes and reducing the number of government-subsidized Section 8 tenants in the complex.
But legally, Section 8 tenants cannot be denied a place to rent. The complex’s board president, James Zago, said he was threatened with a lawsuit after posting an ad to rent one of three units he owns only to tenants who would not use the government program.
For residents, the complex’s 70 percent rental rate presents issues with selling their properties. One resident who spoke at the meeting said a “nice lady” who was a teacher wanted to buy her unit, but was denied a mortgage due to the high rate of rentals in the complex versus owner-occupied units. She said she was ultimately offered consistently low purchase amounts by investors offering cash.
“I’m a mortgage lender, and I feel so bad for the people that are here today,” said Ed Kinney, another Windcrest Court resident. “It’s a standby location. These properties cannot be financed because of the way it’s being run. The investors are paying cash. What we need to do is make it a place where people want to live.”
Steven Cancel, James Cancel’s son, held up a printed copy of Brick Shorebeat’s article on Maple Leaf Park which ran Oct. 9 before the council, citing a high number of comments that supported his father’s call for a crackdown on crime and code violations in the complex.
“Read these comments from Brick residents who don’t even live in Maple Leaf but know what’s going on,” said Steven Cancel. “The people have spoken.”