LAKEWOOD ZONING BOARD SUED FOR VIOLATING OPEN PUBLIC MEETINGS ACT

Back in February, in a welcome response to the call of many neighbors, Lakewood Township's Zoning Board denied an application which seeked permission to construct 140 non-age restricted housing units in Covington Village near Belz / Locust Grove. Currently, the township only permits construction of age-restricted housing units in this area.


This week, the applicant filed a lawsuit in Superior Court charging that the Zoning Board violated the Open Public Meetings Act during the meeting, and unfairly failed to properly analyze the merits of the application before denying it.


Covington Village, off Locust Street, is bordered by Belz / Locust Grove and another senior living development, Harrogate.


Over 15 years ago, the development was originally approved as 12 buildings with 30 age-restricted units in each building. The developers went bankrupt after building only 7 buildings (210 apartments).


A new developer has purchased the project out of bankruptcy. Their analysis of market price sales in several age-restricted developments around Lakewood appears to show that it is not currently cost effective to build age-restricted housing. Therefore they applied to the Zoning Board to permit lifting the age-restriction on the not-yet developed land, and to build it as a new development separate from the existing development, with separate HOA's.


However, many residents of the adjacent Belz communities were opposed to the plan which would have added many families and associated traffic to this already busy area.


Ultimately, a majority of the Zoning Board members stated that they disagreed with the developers' market analysis and they felt that there still is a strong market in Lakewood for senior housing apartments.


A similar application presented to the board last summer drew over 200 letters of opposition, causing for that application to be withdrawn by the developers.


The applicant has now filed a Complaint in Lieu of Prerogative Writs asking the Ocean County Superior Court to override the Zoning Board denial, charging that during the proceeding the Board members violated the Open Public Meetings Act by passing notes to each other, routinely engaging in private sidebar conversations, and reviewing their respective computer screens throughout the meeting.


The lawsuit also claims the Board acted unfairly in its proceedings and denial of the application, by failing to properly analyze the merits of the application, which is required before a Board can deny an application.


Additionally, prior to, and during the proceeding, which was held in-person, the Board permitted members of the public to submit comments on the application via email. The Board permitted this due to the then-Public Health Emergency. The lawsuit charges that the Board violated a State Statute which requires all public comment to be received only under oath or affirmation, which was not possible via email.



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