As spring season approaches, Cranberry Lake Community Club issues linger A look at the local history and why some residents cry foul about mandated membership

| 07 Mar 2019 | 02:07

    By Mandy Coriston
    Byram - The Cranberry Lake Community Club announced last July that starting in 2019, residents must become members, and the club retained the services of attorney Eileen Born, who is well-known statewide for her work with lake associations. In the months since then, long-time resident Kristine Cerza garnered support against the mandated membership, researched the legality of the club’s actions, and contacted officials. Cerza collected well upward of a hundred signatures of residents who are unwilling to pay for lake membership. Many say they utilize the lake from their own backyards, pay very high taxes to live lakeside, and do not receive benefits from the CLCC, such as snow removal or garbage pickup. Many more question how the CLCC, historically a voluntary membership organization, can now “decide” to be a homeowners’ association, having never declared itself as such before. Others question if a seasonal club has the right to decide usage of a state-owned lake.
    Representatives of the club, along with Born, say the lake community was built on a master deed and therefore is a planned real estate development under the New Jersey law known as PREDFDA, which was amended in 2017. Born informed CLCC leadership they would need to mandate membership to be in compliance with the law, commonly referred to as Chapter 106; which pertains to membership rights and responsibilities within real estate developments and homeowners’ associations.
    Theories abound as to why the CLCC decided to retain Ms. Born and pursue compulsory membership, but many have settled on the need for money to repair the Cranberry Lake footbridge, which the CLCC leases from the state. According to the CLCC’s lease, the club is responsible for the maintenance of the wooden walkways and handrails on the bridge, which have fallen into disrepair.
    In anticipation of needing approximately $250,000-$300,000 for maintenance, a separate organization was formed in the spring of 2018. Save Our Bridge is led by many of the same individuals who sit on the CLCC’s Board of Governors and both groups are headed by President Mary Seage. A recent study of the bridge was conducted by the NJDOT and NJDEP, and the report is forthcoming.
    A longtime resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, is concerned at seeing the issue tear the community apart.
    “It’s become awkward to run into neighbors, and these are people I have known for decades," he said. "When all this is over, no matter the outcome, we’re considering leaving the area.”
    This same resident has focused his energy on determining whether the CLCC is operating within its own regulations, even as it tries to force membership. He feels that the CLCC has very much been operating below level for many years, and that the club’s bylaws are a mere formality for people who continue to do whatever they want to do to their own benefit. He also feels the CLCC and the bridge disrepair are intrinsically linked.
    “Between the old bylaws and the new ones they pumped out last year, and the bridge, and always acting like they own the lake, it’s clear this supports my contentions about the CLCC," he said. "Since I was a child, it’s been nothing but deception, deception, deception.” This resident also feels the plea for funds on the Save Our Bridge website is misleading.
    “The CLCC is responsible for the bridge, according to their lease, and the front page of the web site makes it seem like the state of New Jersey doesn’t have the money [for the repairs], and ‘we the people’ have to contribute," he said.
    The lease also indicates the CLCC has responsibility to maintain the clubhouse and waterfront property, but does not include specific language regarding weed control for the entirety of the lake, which the CLCC says is one of common benefits it provides to all residents. The lease was signed with the NJDEP in 1990 for a period of 25 years, but has a holdover clause, which has allowed the CLCC to remain in tenancy beyond the original terms.
    The 1990 agreement also states that the CLCC proposed to lease the property for “the purposes of the development, maintenance, management, and operation of club-related recreational activities and making the same available for public use.” The state also included a clause allowing for a certain number of public, ‘non-resident’ memberships, a far cry from the exclusivity found in previous CLCC bylaws.
    A copy of the club’s 1969 bylaws were recently discovered in the attic of a house belonging to the mother of another longtime resident. These bylaws have fairly strong language pertaining to who may and may not be members of the CLCC, including any potential new members needing sponsorship to apply. These bylaws further state that those wishing to sell their property not be allowed to do so to anyone considered “undesirable” for membership. Members were also not allowed to resign from the club or “dispose of their membership” without permission from the Board of Governors.
    Found in the same attic as the 1969 bylaws were documents concerning legal wrangling in 1987 and 1988; another sore spot for the Cranberry Lake residents who feel like this situation has been played out before. When interviewed in September 2018, Roland Price, whose great-grandfather James Frenche was the patriarch of one of the founding families of Cranberry Lake, expressed his displeasure at what he sees as "another" underhanded attempt to bring in more money for the club. Referring to that late 80s legal action, he said he was “99 percent sure this will end the way it did then.”
    In a suit dated Dec. 17, 1987, a group of residents were named as defendants in a civil action, C-2262-87, filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division of Sussex County. The CLCC was trying to collect past dues from property owners who did not voluntarily join the club. In the legal record dismissing the suit, it’s indicated that the Cranberry Lake Community Club, as plaintiff, was unable to produce the documentation required to prove that all the defendants MUST pay dues or be subject to a lien on their homes.
    This may have been due to the large expenditure the club would have needed to perform surveyance and title searches on each property in question. A letter included in the case closure document reads “if the Board of Governors are trustees of all members, as the by-laws indicate, they are, therefore, bound not to expend or incur any debt or obligation beyond the available means within the board’s ability to pay.”
    These documents also show that the CLCC’s original lawyer in that legal action dropped out of the case partway through, for reasons not addressed directly within the paperwork. The final letter from the Office of McConnell and Norton, who represented the defendants, closes with the emphatic statement: A dismissal with prejudice means the matter may not be reopened.”
    Also of interest is a letter from CLCC attorney Eileen Born to State Senator Steve Oroho (R-24), asking that he and his office not continue to mislead constituents as to the nature of Chapter 106. In the memo, Born references a letter, dated October 2018, between the Office of Legislative Services and the District 24 office. That letter, from Senior Counsel Chris Jewitt, stated that he (Jewitt) believed Cranberry Lake was not subject to PREDFDA due to not having been developed based on a master deed.
    In her Dec. 18, 2018 missive to Oroho, Born challenges Jewitt’s assertion that there is no master deed, and states that the so-named “Calkins deed” filed in 1927 holds the language which entitles the CLCC to operate as a planned real estate development under PREDFDA; specifically its amendment in 1993 to clarify that developments built prior to the original PREDFDA law of 1977 should be covered by the legislation. The 2017 amendment to PREDFDA was to clarify and enhance the definition and voting rights of association members. It should be noted, Senator Oroho was a co-sponsor on the legislation (S-2492) which amended Chapter 106.
    When reached for comment, Eileen Born said she was not at liberty to speak about the ongoing concerns at Cranberry Lake. She instead cited the recent conclusion of Ramapo Mountain Lakes, Inc. v. Owners of Property in Ramapo Mountain Lakes. The decision in that case, which bears marked similarity to the situation at Cranberry Lake, went in favor of Ms. Born and her clients. The one significant difference between the two lake communities, however, is ownership of the lake. Ramapo Mountain Lakes are privately owned bodies of water, whereas Cranberry Lake has been in possession of the State of New Jersey since the Morris Canal went defunct in 1924.
    The receipt of a Spring CLCC newsletter with a letter from President Mary Seage welcoming “all new members” and the subsequent mass mailing of the CLCC’s 2019 Membership Invoices has stirred a sense of urgency in Kristine Cerza and her growing contingent of anti-membership neighbors.
    “They’re even sending out different copies of the membership paperwork to different people,” Cerza said, “and they’re being sneaky about why. Old members are getting a renewal, but people who didn’t previously belong are getting packets that are marked ‘inbound member.' They aren’t using the word ‘mandatory,' they are just expecting people to pay, hoping they’ll just do it.”
    Cerza has taken the next step in her activism and reserved the hall at the Byram Township Fire Department on Rt. 206 to hold a meeting for concerned citizens. The doors will open at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, and the meeting will come to order at 6:30 p.m. Cerza invites all like-minded Cranberry Lake residents to join her to find their collective voice. She’s also invited residents of lake communities which have gone through similar disputes to come speak at the meeting.
    “There was a group formed and incorporated in 1988, the Citizens for Voluntary Membership at Cranberry Lake,” Cerza said, “They organized themselves to take a stand against the club then. We need to do the same thing.”
    What: Concerned Citizens Meeting.
    Who: Cranberry Lake residents who’d like to discuss the CLCC membership mandate.
    When: 6 p.m. doors open, 6:30 p.m. call to order, Wednesday March 13, 2019.
    Where: Byram Township Fire Department, 225 Rt. 206S, Byram, NJ 07821.
    Cost/RSVP: Free/none required.