By the end of September, the Visitation Relief Center – a nonprofit organization that was created in the wake of Superstorm Sandy – amassed $306,000 in fines for building and zoning violations dating back to its creation, documents obtained by Shorebeat show.
The center closed abruptly earlier this month after the building’s lack of a certificate of occupancy and apparent inability to pass building inspections led the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton to shut down operations. In a Sept. 29, 2016 letter to Christie Winters, director of the center, township Construction Official Daniel F. Newman said the center continued operating nearly three years after the township informed the organization that its building – a former farm market adjacent to Visitation Roman Catholic Church – must pass safety inspections and obtain a certificate of occupancy.
“During this time, the office remained occupied in violation of the law and with a complete disregard for the notice of violation, authority of this office and the safety of the building occupants,” Newman wrote.
The center accumulated penalties of $360,000, the letter said, after it was fined $2,000 per week dating back to Oct. 29, 2013, two weeks after the township first issued a notice of violation and gave the organization until the end of the month to allow fire and building safety inspections, obtain a certificate of occupancy and formally be permitted to conduct its operations.
The center never did so, the letter went on to say.
The letter from Newman, as well as a letter from Mayor John Ducey and copies of violation notices issued to the Mantoloking Road property were obtained by Shorebeat through a request under the state’s Open Public Records Act. The documentation shows three major issues that led the township – after four years – to threaten to take the center to court.
An initial inspection of the building was conducted in May 2013 after the organization filed for a building permit, at which point inspectors found “substantially more work being performed” than center officials listed in the permit, Newman alleged. In the letter from Ducey, the mayor detailed two fire safety code violations – the lack of a second egress on the second floor, where offices were occupied, and mechanical units on the same floor which were installed without permits or inspections.
“This is also a violation and a safety hazard,” Ducey wrote.
The fines, specifically, stem from the fact that the building has been occupied without a certificate of occupancy. Newman, in his letter, stated the building should have been vacated so work to bring it up to code could be performed. A certificate could have been issued, and the building reopened, after an inspection.
Newman’s letter said on Nov. 1, the township would issue a summons in municipal court, requesting a judge enforce the $306,000 penalty and issue an order to vacate the structure.
Though the building is now closed, the organization is still likely to face fines, said township Business Administrator Joanne Bergin.
“Once a violation is issued it must be addressed in court, much like a traffic ticket,” Bergin said. “Our practice has been that we recommend a reduced fine if the violation has been addressed. If not, we push for the maximum to help ensure the violations are rectified.”
In the case of the VRC building, she said, the township will likely settle for a lesser fine.
“In this case, since the center is closed and the public is safe, I expect a reduced fine is acceptable,” she said, adding that the township is not looking to generate money over the issue.
“This issue is not at all about fines, it’s about the need for the building to be safe for visitors and employees,” Bergin said.
A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Trenton declined to comment on the building or its future.