An overflow crowd jammed Rumson’s council chambers to air concerns about an addiction recovery house in town. Below, Barbara Russell returns to her seat after speaking with borough Attorney Marty Barger. (Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Rumson residents packed a borough meeting Tuesday night to demand action regarding Oxford House, an addiction-recovery residence where a tenant died of a suspected drug overdose 10 days ago.
Seated on the floor and standing in the hallway outside the bimonthly meeting of the town’s governing body, neighbors teed up Oxford House for setting up a residence at 61 South Ward Avenue without notice and for a self-governance model they say isn’t working.
“They’re sitting on the porch and they are drinking,” in violation of Oxford’s own bylaws governing locally chartered houses, Washington Avenue resident Barbara Russell said of the house’s nine residents.
Having recently completed alcohol and drug treatment programs and then allowed to live together without supervision, Oxford’s young clients are naturally “going to come out and have a party,” said Russell, who described herself as a recovering alcoholic for 26 years.
Though the matter was not on the council’s agenda, town officials had anticipated the turnout, and the ire.
“We obviously know the issue you’re here for,” said Mayor John Ekdahl, who turned to borough Attorney Marty Barger to offer an overview of legal issues.
“I know you would like to have us say we can get them out of town,” Barger began, “but that’s not the case.”
He said federal courts have consistently upheld the rights of organizations such as Oxford House – which has some 1,600 homes in 45 states, including more than 100 in New Jersey – to set up recovery residences without being subject to local prohibitions regarding boarding houses. The tenants, he said, are covered by anti-discrimination laws protecting the disabled and because they’re considered “families.”
Officials also said they had no advance notice from Oxford House, based in Maryland, that it would be setting up in the West Park neighborhood in August, and only learned about its presence after police responded to complaints from neighbors about activity at the house.
One after another, neighbors and other town residents stood to probe for angles of attack that might either force the home’s residents to leave or to exhibit better behavior.
James Sylvester, of Washington Avenue, read a long prepared statement he said was on behalf of a group of homeowners whose properties are close to the Oxford House.
“It is not our intent to intimidate, discriminate or stigmatize against Oxford or its members, or to reflect a not-in-my-backyard attitude,” Sylvester said. “Rather, given what has occurred and has been observed to date, we question the bona fides of this organization.”
He noted the lack of outreach to neighbors before Oxford signed its two-year lease on the property in July and open consumption of alcohol on premises.
Sylvester urged town officials to force Oxford to provide evidence that the nine residents are in fact disabled, while others pushed for the use of construction code and fire code regulations to ensure compliance.
Ekdahl said he, Barger and town Administrator Tom Rogers expected to meet within two weeks with local and regional representatives of Oxford House, and Barger has written a letter to the national organization demanding accountability.
No details have been released about the circumstances surrounding the death of the resident, whose body was found on October 13. Authorities have not confirmed his identity, though they have privately acknowledged he was a 25-year-old Holmdel man. The results of an autopsy are not yet available, Barger said.
The home has been the subject of complaints, but the number has “not been substantial, and most of them have been coming from one individual,” police Chief Scott Paterson told redbankgreen last week. All have been over minor issues, he said.
A review of police records shows cops went to the address on complaints four times between July 17, when Oxford leased the house, through October 15, with one additional follow-up visit by Paterson himself. All involved complaints of cars parked on the home’s lawn, but most were not substantiated by police.
One complaint, at 10:14 on a Saturday morning, reported “multiple vehicles parked on the front lawn and 10-16 people out front.” The responding officer found “2 vehicles parked in the driveway and nobody in the area.” He advised the complainant to call borough hall.
A complaint called in two days after the death resulted in a warning issued to the owner of a car found parked partially on the lawn.
A neighbor who acknowledged she had been the caller but asked not to be identified said other residents were upset by activities at the house but for their own reasons seemed reluctant to call the police.