Peters v. Township of Hopewell

Decision Date19 March 1982
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 78-3108.
PartiesCarl F. PETERS, Plaintiff, v. TOWNSHIP OF HOPEWELL, a Municipal Corporation of the State of New Jersey; James Johnson, Jeffrey Wittkop, Samuel Little, Richard Smith, and Walter Reikowski, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Jersey


Carl F. Peters, pro se.

Charles F. Harris, Rhoads, Parkin & Harris, Lawrenceville, N. J., for defendants.


DEBEVOISE, District Judge.

I. Nature of the Proceedings

Plaintiff in this action is Carl F. Peters, a resident of the Township of Hopewell, New Jersey. Defendants are the Township of Hopewell, a municipal corporation; James Johnson, Jeffrey Wittkop, Samuel Little and Richard Smith, who were retained by Township authorities to remove certain property from Peters' premises in December, 1972; and Walter Reikowski who, in December, 1972 was Building Inspector and Zoning Officer of the Township.

Peters filed his complaint on December 22, 1978, charging that on December 27, 1972 defendants wrongfully seized personal property belonging to him and damaged his real estate, thus depriving him of property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Suit is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.1

Peters was represented by counsel until February 9, 1981, at which time I entered an order permitting his attorneys to withdraw. The case was then awaiting trial. In September, 1981 I granted Peters' request for adjournment to enable him to obtain new attorneys, advising him that it would be the last adjournment. He was unable to retain an attorney, and over his objections I required that he proceed to trial on January 12, 1982. The facts were presented exhaustively. At the conclusion of the evidence I reserved decision.

Findings of Fact

This is a sad case. Peters is a man who marches to a different drummer, whose visions are not shared by others. His actions, taken pursuant to firmly held convictions of his rights, flouted reasonably held expectations and rights of his neighbors and violated lawful regulations of the community in which he lives. The irreconcilable nature of these differences led to the episode which is the subject of this case.

Peters, a machine designer having a BA in mechanical engineering, is an old car enthusiast. He values highly old equipment and devices of all sorts, despising recent machinery. He collects and seeks to preserve those things which he considers worthwhile in order to show it is possible to build things well and to put to use these older articles.

In 1958 Peters and his family moved into the residence in Hopewell Township which he and his wife still occupy. He brought with him five old automobiles, a part of his collection. His house is located on a lot measuring 100 feet by 150 feet, situated in a modest but attractive residential neighborhood of generally well-tended homes and yards.

As the years went by, Peters accumulated more old automobiles, which numbered 11 in December, 1972. Some were operative; some were not. Peters was continuously in the process of repairing and restoring these vehicles. At any one time some of them were in an advanced state of repair and others were dismantled and in a state of considerable disrepair. To plaintiff they were antique automobiles having great value. To his neighbors they were junk which gave Peters' property the appearance of an automobile graveyard. In fact, were each treated separately it would be an object of greater or lesser value capable of renovation and sought after by persons interested in old models of automobiles. In the aggregate they were offensive and illegally stored.

In addition to automobiles Peters assembled on his lot an extraordinary collection of other older objects which he intended to repair and put to good use—wire, wheels, bicycles, lawn mowers, parts, tools, lumber, trailer hitches, and the like. There were two woodpiles, a west compost pile, an east compost pile, and a stone pile.

In an attempt to placate his neighbors and/or to provide shelter for his assemblage of objects Peters erected a number of structures on his lot. He built what he called "garages" around many of the automobiles—made of upright poles or concrete blocks and covered with blue or black plastic cloth. He collected a large number of Christmas trees and erected them along one boundary to shield his property from his neighbors' eyes. Regrettably the trees turned brown and the so-called "garages" appeared to the neighbors as unsightly as the objects they were intended to conceal. Peters erected high and low walls made of concrete blocks. In addition, there were a trellis, two fireproof sheds, other sheds, a plant stand, a cat house and a garden house.

Peters' neighbors complained to Township authorities about the condition of his premises, and Township authorities inspected the premises from time to time. In August of 1972 an inspection was made by Fred DeFrank, the Township Health Officer, defendant Walter R. Reikowski, the Township Building Inspector and Zoning Officer, and Doris Tomlinson, the Township Director of Welfare and Public Health Nurse. A report prepared by Mrs. Tomlinson reflected that they found nine unregistered cars "apparently not in running condition" and litter consisting of "door panels, bicycle parts, auto parts, logs and brush, metal parts, flower pots, etc.". The report also noted "some evidence of clean-up effort in the back yard since the first inspection, such as articles piled more neatly and dead trees chopped into firewood and stacked". It was noted that Mr. DeFrank was to confer with the Township Attorney.

Notices were served upon Peters directing him to remove the unregistered vehicles and to clean up his property. A reinspection was made on September 18, 1972 and it was ascertained that conditions had not improved substantially.

On September 28, 1972 Reikowski, acting as Zoning Officer and Building Inspector, issued a complaint which charged that Peters was maintaining ten unregistered vehicles on his property and a vast quantity of other articles. The complaint further charged that "The continued random storage of multiple types of debris on the property is contrary to the public health and safety of the citizens of the Township of Hopewell, is violation of the Public Health and Nuisance Code and it is in violation of other ordinances of the Township. Said debris constitutes a health hazard in that it encourages the harborage and breeding of rodents and insects and constitutes a danger to sic injury to persons on or about the premises, particularly those of tender years." The complaint asked that Peters be summoned to appear before the Township Board of Health "and dealt with according to law".

The complaint was served upon Peters and a hearing scheduled before the Board of Health. In Hopewell Township the Township Committee also serves as the Board of Health. On the first date scheduled for the hearing Peters requested an adjournment in order to obtain an attorney. The hearing was adjourned to October 26, 1972, at which time Peters elected to proceed without an attorney. Testimony and other evidence was received as to the condition of Peters' property. Peters testified and, according to the Board of Health's Factual Summary, Findings and Order, "offered a number of philosophic reasons for keeping it, all of which may properly be summed up in his own phrase that `everything needs a home'." The Factual Summary recited that "While the Defendant claims that some of the junk or parts thereof are more properly described as antique automobiles, he fixes the item value as being someplace between $10 and $800. The so-called antiques, in their present rusted condition, are of minimal value and, in any event, are not made less of a nuisance or hazard by such adjectival denomination."

The Factual Summary also noted that the Board of Health received a petition containing twenty-one signatures of persons living near the premises. It further noted that on a prior occasion Peters had been fined under a local ordinance for maintaining and storing junk automobile parts. His conviction was affirmed by the County Court and he abandoned his appeal to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court.

The Board of Health's Finding and Order (which followed its summary of the evidence before it) read as follows:

It is undisputed that the junk automobiles, parts of machinery, bottles, lumber and other multiply described debris litters the Defendant's premises. It is also undisputed that there is an uncovered ditch and a combination of combustible trees and flammable liquids.
The substances and conditions, as well as the manner of maintenance, constitutes a nuisance, a source of potential injury and a health hazard. The dangers thus created are magnified by the fact that there are admittedly a great number of children in the neighborhood who play on the Peters property in particular. The Township of Hopewell has adopted a Public Health Nuisance Code that has, as well, an Ordinance prohibiting the keeping of junk automobiles and declaring them a nuisance. This Defendant is in obvious violation of both as well as subject to the provisions of R.S. 26:3-49. The Defendant has no outstanding municipal permits which would justify or validate the keeping of building material or the existence of a trench.
It is hereby ORDERED that the said Carl Peters shall, on or before December 20, 1972, remove and abate the several nuisances existing on the premises, more particularly,
1. The Defendant shall remove all unregistered or inoperative motor vehicles and their parts.
2. The Defendant shall remove all scrap junk and debris from the premises, namely, cans, bottles, broken pieces of machinery, wood, scrap iron, sheet iron, broken doors, motor vehicle parts, wires, bed parts, bottles, cinderblocks, used lumber, broken wagons and all

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