BY KATHY BARATTA
HOWELL – After more than a decade of legal wrangling, Howell homeowner/activist Tracey Kelly has reached a monetary settlement in her lawsuit with builder K Hovnanian.
Kelly, of Villanova Drive, said she could not divulge the agreed upon amount of the settlement and would only comment on the settlement by telling a reporter that she and husband, Phillip, were satisfied with the outcome.
K Hovnanian spokesman Doug Fenichel confirmed that a settlement had been reached in Kellys’ litigation and said he had no other comment on the matter.
The Kellys were at the top of a list of homeowners from Howell’s Country Meadows One subdivision who ended up bringing litigation against K Hovnanian alleging shoddy and unsafe construction practices.
However, it was Tracey Kelly’s unrelenting battle to hold accountable all who were responsible for the problems inherent in the construction of the homes that resulted in four Howell construction and code officials having their licenses revoked by the state as a result of their work product related to the construction of Country Meadows One.
In an effort to stop Kelly from publicizing the problems in her development, K Hovnanian filed litigation against Kelly alleging she had defamed the company with remarks she had made in an interview with Greater Media Newspapers.
In 2002, a state Superior Court judge dismissed the defamation charges against Kelly.
At the time he dismissed K Hovnanian’s defamation charge against Kelly, Judge Benn Micheletti said he had found for Kelly in the matter because he believed she had a right to speak out about what she perceived as wrongdoing as a public issue.
The judge wrote, “Certainly the public has an interest in knowing if local developers, who is one of the state’s largest developers, is building homes without proper permits, etc. and possibly building homes that are unfit to live in.”
In his written decision Micheletti also ruled, “the court recognized that all sellers of products can expect and must accept public examination of their products. Commercial vendors have submitted their products for inspection and presumably invite public attention with the accompanying risk of occasional disparaging or defamatory comment.”
Kelly’s suit against the developer, which was recently settled for an undisclosed amount, alleged fraud and the use of “bait and switch sales tactics” by K Hovnanian.
During the time they were involved in the litigation, Kelly and seven other Country Meadows One homeowners received a 1999 tax reassessment from Monmouth County and Howell that reassessed the total value of the homes for which they had paid almost $300,000 to $90,000, with $60,000 of the value being in the land.
In the wake of Kelly’s pursuit of findings of wrongdoing on the part of K Hovnanian and Howell’s construction inspection and code department, four township inspectors lost their jobs following an investigation by the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
Kelly said she began the effort shortly after taking up residence in the home and finding there were “major problems” involved in the construction of her home.
The DCA investigation which came about due to repeated campaigning by Kelly at the municipal and state levels resulted in findings of construction and code violations on the part of Howell inspectors and the builder.
As things turned out, Kelly, who is the mother of four children, found that her unrelenting pursuit of the matter over more than 10 years has put her in demand as a consumer activist. She found herself called to speak in the capacity as a consumer advocate at symposiums sponsored by state legislators, as well as being the leader of the New Jersey chapter of a national consumer advocate group known as Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings.
Kelly has always maintained it was the not only the safety of her own children, but all of the children who lived in the Country Meadows homes that fueled her campaign for consumer safety and justice.
K Hovnanian eventually made repairs and completed remediation work in many of the homes for problems that may never have been brought to light if not for Kelly’s relentless pursuit of the issues.