Residents may occupy site in woods until March under terms of settlement

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HOWELL – Individuals who have been living in the woods off Route 9 in Howell for three years will be permitted to remain on the property until March.

The property was owned by Howell, but was sold by municipal officials in July 2018 to Dr. Richard Roberts for $1.6 million. The 10-acre parcel is zoned for commercial use.

During a Township Council meeting on Feb. 19, municipal officials settled a legal matter involving the township, Steven Brigham, Destiny’s Bridge and Route 9 Howell LLC.

Brigham and Destiny’s Bridge have operated the encampment off Route 9 and provided assistance to people who have lived there over the years it has been in operation.

Mayor Theresa Berger, Deputy Mayor Evelyn O’Donnell, Councilman John Bonevich, Councilwoman Pamela Richmond and Councilman Thomas Russo voted to authorize the agreement.

Township Attorney Joseph Clark said the agreement will permit the people who live on the wooded tract to remain there until March.

“They have agreed to vacate at that point,” he said.

Resident Barbara Dixel asked why Howell officials were permitted to sell the property to Roberts.

“These are homeless people who do not have the means … and you are evicting them and putting them out on the street and I think it is disgusting. This is a black eye on Howell, shame on all of you,” Dixel said.

Berger said she respectfully disagreed with Dixel’s assessment of the situation.

“A good number of (the residents) have already left (the encampment) and have gone to other towns. There are basically four people (living on the property) at this point and these are the same four people, unfortunately, who have been traveling throughout Ocean County from town to town and they have come here,” Berger said.

The mayor said Howell officials have offered the people who live in the woods assistance.

Dixel asked what Roberts is planning to build on the property.

Richmond said, “This is America, correct? So people are free, and (Roberts), as long as it is within our application process … can pretty much build whatever he likes.”

Berger said she took offense to Dixel’s comment that selling the municipal property was a black eye for Howell.

“I know what (the township manager and the township attorney) have been working on, and what they have been trying to do, and all the social services they brought there and that they were shunned away from that, and that should not be acceptable,” Berger said.

“I know this mayor and the council worked with these people, and worked very well with them and did everything they possibly can do. I was there with you (Dixel) in the audience and they did the best they could possibly do,” Russo said.

Russo said he took offense to Dixel’s comment that referenced the sale of the property as being a black eye for Howell.

Dixel apologized and retracted her statement.

“We worked hard on that process … no other town had ever given permission, we were the first ones to say, ‘here, please stay,’ and to make (the property) a transitional location,” Berger said.