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Led by a mom living out of a hotel, tenants evacuated after rockslide prepare to sue

Christine Catalano’s 6-year-old daughter, Gianna, misses the family’s apartment in West Orange.

She misses her room, where she was awoken the night of Oct. 11 in an emergency evacuation prompted by a rockslide during Hurricane Ida. She misses almost everything about her old life, which is likely gone for good, after a lawyer for the Ron Jolyn Apartments’ owner said the complex would have to be demolished.

“Because I like living there and all of my friends are there,” Gianna explained to a reporter in the local hotel where her family has been staying. “And I really want to bring my Barbies. They’re at the apartment.”

Gianna’s mother never intended to become a tenant organizer. With her two daughters and their father to care for, her job, and the loss of the family’s two-bedroom apartment last month, Catalano already had her hands full — all with the added stress of trying to find a new place to live in a suburban housing market tightened by a coronavirus-driven exodus from cities.

But an organizer is just what Catalano became, with no training and no experience, but with a sense of outrage and a mother’s instinct to protect her children and her broader family of friends and neighbors.

“I felt that what was done to us was so wrong,” Catalano, 42, who works in the office of a court reporting agency, told NJ Advance Media during a recent visit to the Residence Inn in West Orange, where her family and some other Ron Jolyn evacuees have been staying. “It was wrong, and it hurt. Everyone was displaced. We were all in the same predicament, and we were close.”

There hadn’t been a tenant association at the Ron Jolyn Apartments, and it occurred to Catalano after last month’s chaotic, late-night evacuation that someone had to band her neighbors together, and if not her, who else? As a result, more than 30 of the 45 families displaced from apartment complex have hired a pair of lawyers, Thomas Cataldo of Morris Plains and Ronald Nagle of Morristown, who last week sent letters to representatives of their landlord, the township and Seton Hall Preparatory School, advising them of potential litigation.

“It was like, ‘Do you want to do this together?’” Catalano recalled of an initial discussion with a fellow tenant just after the evacuation. “We can all get together and let’s find out why? Should this have been taken care of? Could this have been prevented? If it could have been prevented, I say we should go after the person who’s negligent, because we were all displaced and it was unfair.”

The Oct. 28 letter was sent to Steven Eisenstein, a lawyer for the tenants’ former landlord; Ron Jolyn owner John Jakimowisz; Headmaster Michael Gallo of Seton Hall Prep, which in 2017 completed a 44-acre athletic complex atop the steep slope where the slide occurred, which the tenants and others believe increased runoff down the slope; and the Richard Trenk, the township attorney for West Orange, where the zoning board approved SHP’s Kelly Athletic Complex in 2010. Township officials also later allowed most Ron Jolyn residents to remain in their apartments for nearly six weeks after the rockslide occurred.

Apart from the trauma of the evacuation itself — Catalano’s older daughter, Gabrielle, said it was “terrifying” — tenants were angered that township officials only evacuated the complex based the recommendation of an engineering firm, Parsippany-based Langan, that had been retained by the owner’s insurance company.

Catalano, fellow tenants, and others are also skeptical of the landlord’s subsequent decision to demolish the entire complex, though Eisenstein insists that his client had no choice but to knock down the apartment complex based on recommendations from three separate consultants.

The letter informs the recipients: “It is our position that your client’s negligence contributed to the deteriorating condition of the property and damages, among other things, sustained by the tenants as a result of that negligent conduct.”

A rockslide during Hurricane Ida forced the evacuation of the Ron Jolyn Apartment building in West Orange. The structure will be demolished. The Kelly Athletic Complex lies a short distance to the west of the apartments. West Orange, N.J. Oct. 21, 2021Andre Malok | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

In a phone interview, Cataldo said the correspondence, which he called a “letter of representation,” is a possible precursor to a lawsuit against any or all of the recipients, though he would welcome settlement offers.

“Obviously, it’s in everybody’s interest not to litigate,” Cataldo said. But, he added, “We’re prepared to litigate if need be.”

Eisenstein did not respond to requests for comment on the letter, and Gallo’s office said the school had no comment. Trenk rejected the letter’s assertions as baseless.

“Mr. Cataldo’s letter makes certain statements without any basis or support,” Trenk told NJ Advance Media in an email. “The record before the Zoning Board of Adjustment included 27 separate meetings and over 90 hours of testimony. Outside engineers and other professionals were totally involved in all respects of the approval process. No objection was ever submitted concerning the drainage of the sports complex.”

Trenk likewise rejected assertions that the approval and development of the Kelly complex had increased runoff down the steep slope.

“As to the slope’s stability,” he wrote, “the Township Construction Official and others were on site immediately after Hurricane Ida, which was a 500-year event. Until the Langan Letter was received on October 11, a national holiday, no indication existed of a potential safety hazard. Immediately upon receiving same, the Township took immediate action.”

The Kelly Athletic Complex, which includes artificial turf football, baseball and practice fields, parking lots, buildings and roads, sits on a 44-acre hilltop site that was once the estate of Union Army Commander Gen. George McClellan, later a governor of New Jersey.

The turf athletic complex was controversial from the start, with a hearing process that lasted two years, before its approval by the township Zoning Board in 2010. Opponents included members of a group known as Our Green West Orange, who objected to the development of the site and cutting down of 1,000 trees. Members of the Green group now say the rockslide and displacement of the 45 Ron Jolyn families is a consequence of the site’s overdevelopment.

They’re not the project’s only critics. David Marconi, who lives with his wife and two children in a house on Northfield Avenue, said more than just runoff has been cascading down the slope since the complex was built.

“We have been living under a barrage of lacrosse balls, rocks, trees, water for years,” Marconi, 47, said in an email. “We feel like the town has abandoned us long ago to the desires of Prep.”

Marconi said his neighbors on Northfield want the township to commission a study of the complex’s drainage system and the safety and security of the entire steep slope, beyond where it rises — and fell — behind the apartment complex.

“Our families and our homes depend on it,” Marconi wrote.

Family lives in hotel after rock slide

While in the kitchen area of their hotel room, Christine Catalano talks to her daughter Gianna, 6, who is having dinner. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media

Meanwhile, life goes on at the Residence Inn for several of the displaced Ron Jolyn families, whose hotel stays continue to be paid by the township out of an account known as the Mayor’s Sunshine Fund, fueled by private contributions.

On a sunny afternoon this week, Catalano waited outside the hotel’s main entrance on Prospect Avenue, where she hugged 6-year-old Gianna after the first-grader stepped off the yellow school bus that had driven her from Kelly Elementary School, named for West Orange’s astronaut brothers, Mark and Scott.

As her mother talked to a reporter, Gianna looked out a front window in the hotel lobby, waiting for her sister Gabrielle’s bus. Catalano was ready when it pulled up, and hugged her older daughter when she stepped off. Another pair of sisters whose family was also evacuated from the apartment complex got off the bus, too, and all of them made their way through the hotel’s carpeted, wood paneled public areas to the floor where both families were staying. The girls hugged their friends goodbye, then went inside their temporary home.

The hotel is immaculately maintained, and the family’s one-bedroom suite felt clean and new. It had its own kitchenette, a small dining table, a living room, and a separate bedroom and bath. Catalano said the hotel staff has been friendly and considerate.

But the suite is about half the size of the family’s old 800-square-foot apartment at the Ron Jolyn, and it lacks a second bedroom for the girls to call their own.

“At the moment I feel fine,” said Gabrielle, a sixth grader at Gregory Elementary School. “But for the past four nights I’ve been crying. I want to go back home.”

Ron Jolyn deposit refund check

Steven Eisenstein, a lawyer for the owner of the Ron Jolyn Apartments in West Orange, handed a check to evacuated tenant Joanne Lowe for the amount of her returned security deposit, her refunded October rent, and $1,250 to cover relocation costs. Steve Strunsky | NJ Advance Media For NJ.com

Catalano’s family is certainly facing challenges living in the hotel room. Dinners have been more challenging, finding enough space to do homework, while dealing with spotty wifi, has been tough on the girls. And at bedtime, the living room becomes a dorm, and a spare mattress that usually stands against a wall is laid on the floor for one of the girls, while the other sleeps with their mom on the foldout couch. Dad gets the big bed, but he’s usually alone.

Still, the girls’ dad, Jason Flippen, a 46-year-old medical equipment technician, had nothing but love for Catalano and her volunteer role, organizing tenants who otherwise might have had to fend for themselves.

“She definitely put herself out there, to keep people on the same page and understanding what their rights were and what was going on,” Flippen said, speaking in the kitchen while Catalano was in the bedroom. “So, yea, I got to give it to her. She helped a lot.”

West Orange mayor and council president

West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi and Council President Cindy Matute-Brown met with displaced former residents of the Ron Jolyn Apartments on Oct. 14. Parisi took the blame for an evacuation he termed “poorly done.” Matute Brown later said she wondered why the township had not ordered its own assessment of the rocky slope’s stability immediately after the Sept. 2 rockslide that prompted the evacuation.Steve Strunsky |NJ Advance Media For NJ.com

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Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected].