No autism next door: NJ nonprofit sues neighbors over manure vandalism
MIDDLETOWN — A group that helps young people with autism transition into adulthood got some welcome news from an appellate court after getting anything but a warm welcome when they moved into the neighborhood.
Oasis Therapeutic Life Centers had sued neighbors after they said their property was vandalized and large amounts of manure was dumped on their land after buying a property in town. The group claimed the neighbors were discriminating against them because the property would be used to house people with autism.
An appellate panel this month said that the group had standing to sue under the discrimination law, explaining that while the owners of the property might not fall into a protected class, they represent people who do.
Oasis bought the property to create "transitional residential residential adult independent learning centers." The first of these centers was started after the group bought a 26-acre estate.
In 2015, the group arranged to buy a second property for $2.2 million, contingent on a $600,000 grant from the Monmouth Conservation Foundation. The group got the grant, but only after a delay caused by a neighbor concerned about a "possible link" between autism and the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Oasis said in its lawsuit that after contracting to buy the property several neighbors went door to door getting signatures on a petition objecting to the grant, which resulted in the grant ultimately being denied. The group also said some neighbors worked together to make a "sham offer" on the property to stop the sale to Oasis. The offer eventually fell through, allowing Oasis to buy the property.
With the sale to Oasis back in play, the property owner got anonymous letters saying things like "up until now you have been a good neighbor," and "[h]ow can you live with yourself?," according to the panel. The neighbors said they were willing to buy the property again and one of the defendants, identified as Peter Wade, offered Oasis $250,000 for its contract rights. He also offered the owner $250,000 to break the contract, and the deal closed in October 2015.
Oasis claimed that in November of that year residents found what was described as "enormous, garish and frightening graffiti," covering close to 700 square feet on its driveway. The lawsuit also claimed that Wade admitted "we did that" after a dispute about the driveway.
Oasis claimed that the next month defendants allowed a "very aggressive goat" to trespass onto the property and head-butt the owner. A horse was also allowed on the property, leaving piles of manure, and Oasis alleged the defendants dumped "literally hundreds of pounds" of manure on the property.
Legal proceedings between Oasis and the defendants started in May 2016. The organization said the neighbors violated the state's Law Against Discrimination. A judge dismissed the lawsuit but Oasis appealed.
Attorney Ronald S. Gasiorowski, who filed the original lawsuit, told the Asbury Park Press that the decision to reinstate the lawsuit was "the most gratifying I've had in all my hears practicing law, because I think it really protects the rights of people who need protection, and it's just a good decision." Gasiorowski told the Press he did not know whether the lawsuit would proceed or whether there might be an appeal by the defendants to the state Supreme Court.