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Back in February, in a welcome response to the call of many neighbors, Lakewood Township's Zoning Board denied an application which sought 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.

A lawsuit now threatens to toss out this denial because the Board members violated the New Jersey Open Public Meetings Act by whispering and passing notes among themselves during the public hearings on the application. The trial date is set for this coming Monday.

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application presented to the board last summer drew over 200 letters of opposition, causing for that application to be withdrawn by the developers.

However, in April, as first reported here on FAA News, the developer filed a lawsuit in Ocean County Superior Court charging that the Zoning Board violated the Open Public Meetings Act during the meeting, "by passing notes to each other, routinely engaging in private sidebar conversations, and reviewing their respective computer screens throughout the meeting", and "unfairly failed to properly analyze the merits of the application before denying it".

Additionally, due to the then-Public Health Emergency, the Board permitted members of the public to submit comments on the application via email prior to, and during the proceeding, (which was held in-person). 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.

The developer's Complaint in Lieu of Prerogative Writs asks the Ocean County Superior Court to override the Zoning Board denial, on the basis that it was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable, and automatically approve his application.

In the Trial Brief he filed last month, Zoning Board Attorney Jerry Dasti fought back regarding the Open Public Meetings Act violations (i.e. whispering, passing notes), writing that "First and foremostly, that is not true. Second, there is absolutely no proof, not even a Certification, to substantiate these false allegations. Third, if in fact anyone objected to the manner in which the Board members conducted themselves, perhaps they should have mentioned it during the approximate 6 hours of public hearings. No one did. Fourth, since the applicant was represented by a different law firm at the two public hearings, the author of Plaintiff's Brief has no direct knowledge to make up and try to legitimate such a false allegation."

The parties will face off before Judge Ford this coming Monday afternoon.

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Yanky Weiss said...

Hopefully this lawsuit will be a wake up call to our Zoning Board members. They are granted high powers and their meetings are quasi-judicial, but with such authority comes responsibility. They need to cut out their constant off-mic whispering. If they go off the rails, their taxpayer funded attorney needs to warn them to get back in check.

C'mon Jerry said...

So, um... That's what Tough Jerry has to say on behalf of his boys? I hear... Lots of luck in court with THAT response!

Anonymous said...

Got to vote the bums out. Doesn't matter that it's Akerman on the ballot this year. One at a time, the all got to go!

Anonymous said...

"Sought" not "seeked"