Forrest Lakes

| 20 Apr 2019 | 09:52

    BYRAM TOWNSHIP. Forest Lakes residents grapple with Planned Real Estate full Disclosure Act changes.
    By Mandy Coriston
    Tucked into the hills at the juncture of Andover Borough, Andover Township, and Byram Township, the community of Forest Lakes was founded as a private lake reservation in 1953 by the Westby Corporation. At the heart of the neighborhood lies Forest Lake, an unadulterated 45 acres of water with beaches and amenities that can be used exclusively by members of the Forest Lakes Club and their guests, a privilege for which they annually pay $750. The Forest Lakes Water Company provides water to homes within the reservation, at a yearly cost of $400 per household. Residents also pay a dam assessment for repairs which were completed in 2014, and remit taxes to the municipality in which their home sits.
    In February, some residents were taken aback to find that they’d have to dig into their pockets for another $320, when the Forest Lakes Club announced that they were enforcing mandatory membership to be in compliance with Chapter 106 of the Planned Real Estate Full Disclosure Act. PREDFDA, a state-level statute, was amended in 2017 to expand and protect the voting rights of members of planned communities and homeowners’ associations. This isn’t sitting well with some of the newer inhabitants of Forest Lakes, especially those who purchased their homes under the distinct impression that membership in the club was by choice.
    Jaclyn Havington is one of those residents; she and her husband closed on their home in October of 2018.
    “When we were looking to buy, it was hard to avoid lake communities- we have so many in this area,” she said, “But we specifically ruled out mandatory membership lakes, and we made sure to ask about the membership here. We were told it was voluntary. We liked that because we might have wanted to join later.”
    Havington expressed concern about the $320 ‘basic membership’ fee, which according to the club and their attorney, Eileen McCarthy Born of Dolan & Dolan, PA, will pay for the upkeep of common interest property.
    “We feel like we’re being forced into something we don’t want,” Havington said, “And it doesn’t feel like common property if we’re not allowed to use it. The board doesn’t seem willing to compromise on allowing any access without a full membership.”
    Another worry for Havington is being tied to a $320 payment for the duration of her homeownership in Forest Lakes.
    “Before they changed the bylaws to include this new basic membership, they had a passive membership level,” she said, “and once you committed to that, you couldn’t get out of it until you sold your house. We’re scared we’ll have to pay this money forever, even if Chapter 106 is amended again.”
    “It just seems unfair to people who have lived here for years to have to pay this fee now, and the club can’t pretend to know what anyone’s financial situation is," she said.
    It is possible that PREDFDA may be amended again, and soon. The representatives of District 24, Assemblyman Hal Wirths, Assemblyman Parker Space, and Senator Steve Oroho (all R), have been working on new legislation to clarify the language within the statute. Wirths is co-sponsoring a bill (A5043) to do just that; the bill was introduced in February and is awaiting a committee hearing. The primary sponsor on the bill is Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27), who was the sponsor on the bill which expanded Chapter 106 in 2017 and who feels the intention of those changes has been misconstrued. Senator Oroho is expected to co-sponsor the Senate version of the bill (S3661) with Senator Troy Singleton (D-7), the chair of the Senate’s Community and Urban Affairs Committee.
    A statement was released by the District 24 office on April 18 to reassure lake dwellers that their concerns are being addressed as diligently as possible.
    “We have had residents of various lake communities in the district contact our office,” according to the statement from Oroho, Space, and Wirths. “For the first time they are being charged fees and (being) threatened with liens, and, according to them, have deeds that do not require such. Many are seniors on fixed incomes. We are working with the sponsors of S3661/A5043 to get those bills heard in committee this spring when the legislature reconvenes in May.”
    Feeling unheard is the biggest complaint of Forest Lakes resident Tammi Peterson, who purchased her home in May of 2018.
    “We had a lot of questions after we received the membership letter in February, and when we asked them, we felt we got hostility in response," she said.
    Peterson’s concerns were passed on to club attorney, Born, who sent a reply in a letter dated February 22, 2019. In that letter, Born states that Peterson was aware of her deed restrictions at the time of the purchase of her home, and chose to take ownership regardless. Peterson maintains that her title does not specifically say that club membership is mandatory.
    Peterson is also frustrated that she was not allowed to vote on the proposed club budget, which she is being forced to pay into. The letter from Born explained that only members in ‘good standing’ would be able to vote on the 2019 budget, but all basic members would gain voting privileges in 2020. The budget was passed on April 8, and only those already belonging to the club were privy to seeing it prior to the meeting. The approved budget includes projected revenues from incoming basic membership fees.
    “They held the budget meeting before they mailed out the 2019 membership forms. How was I supposed to be in good standing? I pay my taxes, I pay my water bill,” Peterson said, “It all seems to be backwards, and the lack of communication is awful.”
    Peterson is one of those residents who reached out to the District 24 office, and also contacted the state Department of Community Affairs. The DCA, however, is unable to get involved, a lesson already learned from the similar battle going on in Cranberry Lake, just a few miles down Rt. 206.
    In March, DCA Communications Director Tammori Petty explained that the department cannot get embroiled in the specifics of lake association affairs.
    The official statement from Petty reads in part, “The DCA will have limited jurisdiction relative to the enforcement of election and voting rights in planned real estate developments. Also, the Department of Community Affairs does not have the statutory authority to take actions such as investigating alleged wrongdoings of board members or employees, removing board members from office, or ordering board members or employees to comply with governing documents. Similarly, we cannot order revisions to financial practices or operating procedures, conduct audits or review elections.”
    There’s also no recourse to be found at town hall. The majority of the homes in Forest Lakes are within the boundaries of Byram Township, and the council finds itself with hands tied. In March, under advisement of Township Attorney Tom Collins, the governing body agreed that they would forego any involvement in what they see as an issue between private citizens and private lake clubs. While that decision was made in regard to Cranberry Lake, the council is taking the same stance on Forest Lakes.
    “We see it as the same problem,” Byram Mayor Alex Rubenstein said at the town’s council meeting on April 16. “This is a matter between private parties, and we have no jurisdiction over that.”
    Both the Forest Lakes Club and attorney Eileen Born declined to comment for this article. Born has previously cited the recent case of Ramapo Mountain Lakes, in which she represented the Ramapo Mountain Lakes Association and won a decision to mandate membership fees for all homeowners in that Bergen County community. Born also represents the Cranberry Lake Community Club in Byram and the Rainbow Lakes Community Club in Parsippany, both of which have made news recently over PREDFDA-compliant membership battles.
    As for Jaclyn Havington, she just wants some resolution in the once-peaceful neighborhood.
    “There was never any animosity between members and non-members, and now it’s uncomfortable,” she said. “It feels like those of us that are speaking up are being painted as scapegoats for tearing apart the community.”
    Ideally, she said, “I’d like to see it all go back to the way it was. And if we are forced to pay for this, I’d like to see some access to the lake and facilities. We need to get something for our money.”
    Tammi Peterson agrees, saying it’s unfair to pay into a club that will provide them nothing in return.
    “Frustrating,” she said. “I can’t get straight answers about anything, and in the meantime, those with full memberships can bring guests to enjoy for free what I’m paying for and can’t even use.”