EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — After almost 16 months of living with next to nothing, Libby Owen is ready to move back home.
The problem? “Home” is a floating house in Sea Village Marina, a community unlike any other in the state. Sea Village is a houseboat neighborhood on the Margate Causeway that has been battered by an ownership squabble, bankruptcy, accusations of underhanded dealing and Hurricane Sandy — one of the worst natural disasters in New Jersey history.
Now, the marina and its approximately five-dozen tenants face an uncertain future, unable to move back into the homes, yet unable to sell out and move on.
Owen and the other tenants fled as Sandy closed in on New Jersey in late October 2012. Some went to other homes in Florida. But Owen’s home — and everything she owned — is at Sea Village. She was allowed back just once, and filled her black Mini Cooper with personal effects that she has moved to various locations.
She now pays $1,000 per month on her houseboat loan and $1,500 for a winter rental in Middle Township. Her lease expires in June.
“I don’t know where I’m going after that,” she said.
Frank Pinto, another Sea Village resident, lowered his insurance coverage figures for less expensive premiums several weeks before Sandy. He figures the storm ultimately cost him about $60,000.
Now living in St. Petersburg, Fla., he said he was glad he had insurance, but “We really wish the storm hadn’t happened and we could have stayed there.”
Similarly, James Brodsky and his wife bought their houseboat in 1984 with what they had earned driving Atlantic City jitneys, naming it the “Dollar Affair” for the going transportation rate.
Now 71, he and his wife are waiting out the recovery in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and at their daughter’s Egg Harbor Township home. Their boat sits with a cracked hull in the marina parking lot, the eerily undisturbed living room visible to anyone driving west on the Margate Causeway.
He is optimistic he will be home soon.
“Once the place is dredged, the whole thing is fine,” Brodsky said. “All we’ve got to do is get the permits and do what we have to do.”
The ex-tenants have attracted the township’s attention, but officials have said there is little they can do, since houseboats exist in a legal gray area between real estate and vessels.
Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said, “I feel bad for these people,” and township Administrator Peter Miller said he put operators and homeowners in touch with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.
The slow recovery from the hurricane was only the latest problem for the community created by ex-Ventnor Mayor John Best III in the early 1980s, leaving what former tenants called a close-knit, beautiful place to live in a state of muddy disrepair.
Today, state regulations may complicate any recovery, limiting the ability of the marina and owners to repair and replace their storm-damaged vessels.
Shortly after Sea Village Marina was established, the state Department of Environmental Protection banned other houseboat communities in 1985, and in a March 1997 settlement with Sea Village, permitted just the 55 floating hulls and 14 nonpowered houseboats to remain. Hulls that leave can be replaced only by hulls registered before June 1984, and nonpowered houseboats by powered vessels that meet state and federal boating standards.
Fighting over control of the property may have also deferred maintenance.
Doctors diagnosed Best with terminal cancer in fall 2003. He hurried to put together an estate plan, writing a $1.6 million mortgage against the property for him and his wife, Patricia Best, and unsuccessfully trying to buy back a 25 percent share from his son Mark Best for a $200,000 mortgage. The mortgages were to be payable on sale, with the other children splitting remaining proceeds. John Best died that December. Patricia Best did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The mortgages proved a sticking point when she tried to sell. Superior Court Judge William Todd permitted the sale to Baywatch Marine LLC in March 2009, which agreed to pay off the bank’s $200,000 mortgage, shoulder litigation and buy Mark Best’s share for $100,000.
But Baywatch, operated by Thomas Martinolich, immediately challenged Patricia Best’s $1.6 million mortgage, with attorney Stephen Hankin in later filings calling it a “fraudulent scheme” to avoid creditors.
The marina filed for bankruptcy in March 2010, claiming a little more than $1 million in assets. It had $2.1 million in liabilities, the disputed mortgage making the largest piece.
After years of dispute, settlement documents filed last summer show Patricia Best gave up all rights to the marina for $450,000. The marina also left bankruptcy protection last fall, clearing the way for renewal.
Tenants said the property slid into disrepair while operators fought for control.
Some tenants had begun withholding rent in 2007 to force the marina to dredge, upgrade their water and make other repairs. U.S. Marshals seized several houseboats in 2009 after tenants did not pay their dock fees.
Bankruptcy court filings reflected the court’s growing impatience with delayed maintenance. Bankruptcy Court Judge Judith Wizmur ordered that the marina connect with the municipal water supply by October 2012 or risk being sold off. Water finally flowed in late October 2012 — days before Sandy’s arrival.
Wizmur also required the marina to take steps toward dredging the property, which has not been accomplished.
Martinolich, the marina’s manager, said in letters to tenants that the marina continued to seek grants and loans, while working with an engineer on rebuilding from Sandy. He pledged to keep them informed of any construction plans.
The marina had not secured a rebuilding loan by the end of 2013, Martinolich wrote, adding it was “imperative” that tenants pay new $300-per-month slip fees reinstituted in late 2013 to help cover taxes, insurance and permits. He did not return multiple calls or messages seeking comment.
Yet, for all the recent troubles, the tenants of this unique place miss the community they had on the water, and now wonder if it is gone for good.
“It’s a great life,” Brodsky said. “They had parties every holiday … it was a tremendous community, and to see it destroyed like this is just horrible.”
Added Pinto, “As much as the place had some maintenance issues and other issues, it was a great place to live.”
It was a windy and cold day when Owen visited last month. Two hours past low tide, the boats sat in brown-gray mud that hasn’t been dredged in years. The docks resembled the tracks of a wooden roller coaster, and signs warned people not to get too close.
“Wow. Sad, isn’t it?” she asked.
“That’s my house,” she added, and pointed. Owen’s home was barely visible past other homes listing at crazy angles. It was tantalizingly close, but completely inaccessible.
“You just can’t get to it, which is a shame,” Owen said, “because this is the most wonderful place in the world to live.”
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