Garage converted from group home becomes flashpoint in historic Morristown


By Marion Filler

A garage converted to a group home in historic Morristown was disputed Wednesday by neighbors who claim it threatens the character of the neighborhood by violating its single-family zoning.

The city’s zoning council heard about an hour of virtual testimony from Nate Diskint, executive director of Cohome inc., a Miller Road residence for adults with developmental disabilities.

Diskint is looking for a usage gap to change a restored garage from a recreational facility to a residence, for a supervisor or guard to oversee the programs and take care of the day-to-day affairs of running the group home.

Nate Diskint testifies for Co-home, December 15, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

He acts as a guardian. He expects to live in the accessory building for at least two years and then employ someone else to replace him, he said.

By all accounts, the disabled occupants of Cohome have not caused any problems and are welcomed by the neighbors. Miller Road ownership has also improved in appearance.

But the garage conversion sets a bad precedent, say some neighbors, who cited Diskint’s inconsistencies and perceived lack of transparency as the basis of their crisis of confidence.

Diskint and his brother Yehuda Disquent are the founders of Morris Blue Inc., the company that owns Cohome and two other local properties intended to serve the same clientele. Nate moved into the Victorian mansion on Miller Road shortly after his purchase in 2018 for $ 1.1 million.

In October 2020, he obtained a permit to restore a detached garage into a recreational space for Cohome residents. Another permit to add a kitchen was granted in November 2020.

Nate Diskint’s testimony about the number of disabled occupants living in the nine-bedroom house (sometimes described as eight-bedroom) made neighbors question the need for an additional residence and why the garage renovated should not remain as the social space initially planned.

In an interview on October 7, 2021 put online, Diskint claimed that a maximum number of five clients can be hosted at Cohome. Two additional resident advisers, or RAs, brought the total to seven occupants, according to the interview.

Appearing virtually before the zoning board last month, Diskint testified there are nine occupants – six residents and three AR.

LEGAL QUESTION

Neighbor Denise Flanagan called Wednesday’s meeting to ask what the gatekeeper role was. When told that this involved monitoring programs and grounds, she asked why this person needed a separate house on the property.

“We want to use all the space we have in the house to serve and continue our mission of housing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, so that the units available in the house are best suited for these purposes,” said Diskint.

President of the council Steve pylypchuk seconded Diskint on this point, asking if the recreational space inside the house could be moved to the accessory structure to make room inside the house for a caretaker’s residence. .

“The answer is no,” Diskint said. “There is no space that could be converted into residential in the house. “

Two brothers hope to convert this residence in historic Morristown into a group home.  Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Two brothers have converted this residence, pictured in 2018, in historic Morristown, into a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Caller Donna McNamara wondered why social programs cannot take place in the ancillary structure as originally planned.

“Our programming is for residential housing, for people with disabilities, so moving the programming there would mean putting some of our customers there,” Diskint replied.

The old garage, now an 800 square foot cottage, stands a few feet from the main house. It is not a difficult trip for the residents of the group homes who regularly roam the neighborhood and whose independence is encouraged, opponents suggest.

Linda Carrington, who lives across from Cohome and served for nine years on the Zoning Council, called with a technical question:

When Cohome’s lawyer Franck Vitolo made Cohome’s request to specifically limit the occupancy of the accessory residence to a caretaker, did Vitolo assume the board had that legal power?

Carrington has his doubts.

“I am asking this because in 2019 the New Jersey State Superior Court Appeal Division declared an act restriction invalid and unenforceable because zoning is used to determine the use of land of a property, not the identity status of the owners or the people who occupy the land, ”she said.

Board of directors David Brady had no answer, but agreed with the board member James bednarz that the matter requires further discussion. Brady said he would research the matter and answer it at the hearing next month.

Caller Heikki uustal asked if the chalet could possibly become a rental property.

“My intention is to use it for employees as far as I foresee,” Diskint replied.

But what if Cohome is having a hard time or leaves 44 Miller Road entirely, the caller asked. Would Diskint claim that it will never be a rental?

Diskint declined to say, preferring to rely on lawyers.

Distrustful neighbors

Local owners are wary. The results of group homes in the region are mixed; many have sunk. When the council of Morristown canceled a $ 100,000 grant At the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund Co-home in July 2019, people worried about its sustainability.

According to the city administrator Jillian barrick, sticking points included questions about the association’s financing, mortgage and insurance. A big point of contention was the city’s insistence on placing a member on Cohome’s board of directors, Barrick admitted at the time.

Cohome’s finances are beyond the scope of the Zoning Council, which has not accepted questions from the public on the matter. But as a non-profit organization, Cohome is required to publicly disclose certain information.

Records show Cohome to be the recipient of federal funding, grants, donations, and customer fees. He bears mortgages on the former owner of the property and on the New Jersey Community Capital Fund, a non-profit organization that promotes community health and neighborhood revitalization, according to its website.

Diskint invited its critics to attend an open house at Cohome this Sunday, December 19, 2021.

LEARN MORE ABOUT COHOME INC.

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