Monday, June 19, 2006


Utility battle intensifies in Winslow

Courier-Post Staff

The Township Committee is coming to the aid of elderly residents at two mobile home parks.

About 195 families in The Norway's and Strawberry Village face eviction if they don't convert their heating systems from oil to natural gas or electricity.

The township has begun to explore rent control as a way to protect the tenants and also asked state officials to intervene "to prevent the homelessness of these senior citizens."

Both parks are over-55 communities owned by the Sickler family, which last month began requiring residents to convert within 18 months of the date their lease expires.

Co-owner Paul Sickler said he's paid about $160,000 to clean up oil spills under scrutiny from the state Department of Environmental Protection. In addition, tenants' insurance companies have paid more than $100,000.

"It's not something that I want to do. It's something that I have to do," Sickler said.

About 60 percent of the 152 households in The Norway's and nearly half of the 45 households in Strawberry Village have signed up with South Jersey Gas to connect, he said.

Tenants at Norway's, which is off Sicklerville Road, and Strawberry Village, which is off Tansboro Road, said they, too, want to prevent pollution.

However, they note that conversion costs of $1,500 to $3,700 are daunting for people living on fixed incomes. They have appealed to a variety of government officials.

"There has to be help somewhere," said Strawberry Village resident Bob Dougherty, 71, a leader of the effort against the Sicklers' mandate. "That's what my main objective is: getting help for the senior citizens."

South Jersey Gas offers five-year interest-free loans to finance installations, noted Marie Rossell, a satisfied Norway's resident for 30 years.

"Well, $35 a month . . . it's only a handful of people that can't afford this," said Rossell, a retired casino security guard, adding that the Sicklers "have been pretty good to the residents in here."

The Township Committee stepped into the fray after Norway's resident Paul Potoczny reported Sickler had threatened that "if we take legal action, we would lose even if we win because he would just simply raise our rent to cover his legal expenses," Potoczny said.

Potoczny, who's considering a lawsuit, said he asked for "rent control so that we will not be threatened with rent increases if we exercise our right to legal action."

"Unfortunately, any cost that the business incurs gets handed out to the end customer," Sickler said. "Money doesn't grow on trees."

After the governing body voted, 9-0, to study the creation of a rent-control board, Potoczny said he was "ecstatic."

Mayor Sue Ann Metzner voted for the study but said she was skeptical that rent control would help.

"I think that where it doesn't exist people view it as a saving grace, and, in fact, it may be. I am just not as convinced of that at this point in time," she said.

Metzner said Winslow turned to the state Department of Community Affairs to address the seniors' plight because "I really don't see that the township can do very much at all."

In a letter to Community Affairs Commissioner Susan Bass Levin, the township asked her department and others to investigate "the housing practices of the landlord."

Metzner said she could see Sickler's business predicament.

"I understand him, needing or wanting to protect himself," she said. "As long as he goes about it in a legal manner . . . I don't see how it's discriminatory when you're applying the same rule to everyone."

It has been more than 25 years since Winslow last had rent control, which applied to the Sicklers' parks.

"They did away with it because it didn't work out for the township," Sickler said. "It became a hassle for the township."

Reach Erik Schwartz at (856) 486-2904 or