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A property owner has retained an attorney to apparently delay as long as possible the long planned installation of a traffic signal at the Chestnut Street / New Hampshire Avenue intersection in Lakewood over a dispute regarding the appraisal of the land taking and easements.

Ocean County Superior Court Judge Craig Wellerson has now put a halt to this continued delay, hopefully moving ahead the traffic signal project.

The Ocean County Engineering Department has been working for numerous years on a plan to improve the congested intersection of Chestnut Street and New Hampshire Avenue with a modified jughandle combined with two new traffic signals.

If the county would simply install a standard traffic signal with a leed northbound left turning arrow, southbound traffic would become an even major disaster as they would need to wait longer for their green signal.

Instead, County Engineers have worked for years designing a plan to completely redesign the existing Route 70 westbound exit ramp to meet up with a new T intersection with New Hampshire Avenue. This new intersection will get its own traffic signal to allow for safe right and left turns onto Chestnut Street. This way, the intersection of Chestnut Street and New Hampshire Avenue will receive its own traffic signal which will permit safe turning from Chestnut Street onto New Hampshire Avenue, but no left turns from New Hampshire Avenue northbound onto Chestnut Street, as northbound left turning traffic will use the redesigned jughandle. Traffic flow on New Hampshire Avenue southbound will be further enhanced with installation of a new right turning lane onto Chestnut Street.

Both Chestnut Street and New Hampshire Avenue are under County jurisdiction, however due this intersections proximity to Route 70 and because the project includes modifying the existing Route 70 westbound exit ramp, the project required approval from the New Jersey Department of Transportation - not a simple thing to acquire.

Traffic Expert Scott Kennel recently told the Lakewood Zoning Board that he was informed by county officials that this prerequisite State approval has now been finalized. [Though a report on Lakewood News Network disputes this statement.]

County officials have begun the process of acquiring the adjoining rights-of-way necessary to install the infrastructure and utilities, with the anticipation that they would be in position to solicit bids for a contract for the project in the first quarter of 2023, and commencing road work in the upcoming Spring.

However, an adjoining property owner has been delaying the project by refusing to sign off on the right-of-way acquisition. This has forced the County to seek Judicial intervention in the matter in order to keep their traffic signal project moving ahead.

Back in January 2021, County officials notified SK Lakewood Associates, the owner of Andrew's Corner Apartments, that they were in the preliminary stages of determining the limits of right of way that they would need to acquire in order to install the southbound right turning lane and other improvements in this project, and in order to start this project as soon as possible, they were requesting signed authorization simply to "enter onto their property."

The letter expressly emphasized that authorizing right-of-entry "would enable us to accelerate the project and complete the work by September 2022. It will not change required procedure towards Just Compensation for the future acquisition. By State law, we must make an offer of compensation to the property owner."

SK Lakewood Associates never responded to this letter.

In April 2021, County officials notified SK Lakewood Associates that they were going to visit the site to do an appraisal of the right of way which they need to acquire. SK Lakewood Associates responded that they wanted to be present during the appraisal. The appraisal was done shortly afterwards.

In July 2022, County officials sent a second "right-of-entry" request to SK Lakewood Associates. They did not give any response.

In September 2022, due to continuation of the project design work, County officials determined that they needed to do a minor revision to the acquisition map and legal description. They forwarded this information to SK Lakewood Associates for their signature of approval. They did give any response.

At this point, County officials have appraised the value of the property, property rights, and site improvements to be acquired to be worth $235,000. The County will additionally acquire temporary rights to a construction easement area for a limited period of time during the construction process, at an annual rent of $8,600. The total property area to be acquired is 7,667 sq feet.

Due to SK Lakewood's continued lack of approval for the right of way acquisition, as first reported here on FAA News, on November 8th, Ocean County Attorney Laura Benson filed in Superior Court for an Order appointing 3 Commissioners to fix the compensation to be paid for the taking of the land.

On November 18th, Super Court Judge Craig Wellerson signed the Order to Show Cause, setting  this matter to be decided on Friday, December 16.

Condemnation filings are typically very routine matters that just take a few weeks of waiting for the judge to sign off on the paper work.

However, in this case, SK Lakewood Associates retained Attorney Adam Garcia Esq of Giordano, Halleran and Ciesla PC to delay this matter all he can.

Mr. Garcia reached out to Ms. Benson to let her know he was just retained on the matter and that while he doesn't intend to actually oppose the taking, he does intend to hire an appraiser to assess the County's offer. He requested that the County send him certain documents relating to the matter. Ms. Benson immediately responded by notifying Mr. Garcia that the County just recently filed the legal action and that "if your client is in position to speak about settlement numbers, please call me."

Mr. Garcia responded that he is not yet up to discussing numbers as an appraisal is still being arranged, but that he just wants a meeting with the County Engineer "to discuss the sequencing of the project."

After not hearing back from the County about a meeting with the Engineer, Mr. Garcia requested Ms. Benson to agree to an adjournment of the Order to Show Cause.

Her response is below:

After Ms. Benson refused to agree to an adjournment, Mr. Garcia wrote to Judge Wellerson directly, requesting an adjournment on the matter, arguing that while he concedes that the county can do a condemnation, State Law requires a condemnor such as Ocean County to "specify the property and interest to be acquired", and while their appraisal identifies a temporary construction easement of 3,175 sq feet, as well as permanent drainage and other easements within Andrew's Corner, it does not specify the location within the property over which the County seeks an easement. "The lack of detail is highly concerning, and goes directly to the heart of the proposed taking, as the current use of the subject property is as a fully occupied apartment complex."

"Given the plainly apparent ambiguities in the County's application for the condemnation, we requested the County's consent to adjourn the Order to Show Cause in order to provide time for us, in conjunction with the County, to address and hopefully rectify the deficiencies without needing to run to Court...

"Although we have explained such deficiencies in detail to the County, as of this writing, the County has not responded substantively, merely indicating that it would not consent to any adjournment.

"Notwithstanding the County's apparent objection, we request adjournment of the Order to Show Cause to January 20, 2023 for us (and hopefully the County if it will participate) to address the deficiencies, and if resolution is not possible, then to oppose the Order to Show Cause on the merits."

Judge Wellerson granted the postponement until this past Friday January 6, 2023.

A few days prior to the court hearing date, there was finally a meeting held between the parties. County officials explained that there was simply a typographical error in the recording documents which failed to list the exact description of the property to be acquired. The County attorney then filed an Amended Motion. The Motion does not stipulate the exact amount of money to be paid for the land taking, rather it seeks to confirm that the county has the right to undertake a condemnation of private land for a public purpose (such as installation of a traffic signal), and for the entering of an Order appointing 3 Commissioners to fix the compensation to be paid for the taking of the land.

Mr. Garcia responded with a Motion to Dismiss the County's condemnation filing, simply on the basis that he felt he was not given sufficient time to reply to the motion, and that while the meeting held between the parties "was productive insofar as SK Lakewood was able to gain a far more complete understanding of the nature of the project and property and interests sought to be acquired, the County was unwilling to reasonably discuss resolution, insisting that SK Lakewood must simply accede to the taking not withstanding the obvious defects in the County's action, which the County insisted could simply be cured by filing of amended papers. When SK Lakewood reminded the County that belated efforts to cure shortcomings under State law were not permitted, the County insisted that it would continue to press its condemnation action."

At Friday's hearing, Judge Wellerson asked simply if SK Lakewood Associates now has all the documents they need and if anything is missing or incorrect. Mr. Garcia conceded that "as of this Wednesday, yes."

Judge Wellerson was not too impressed with the continued opposition to the condemnation, noting that this was not a setting of the appraisal value but rather a formal acknowledgement that the county government does have a right to acquire land for a public purpose by condemnation if needed.

Judge Wellerson further entered an Order assigning 3 Commissioners to fix the compensation to be paid for the taking of the land; Brick Attorney Edward Genz, Esq, who will serve as Presiding Commissioner, Lakewood Attorney Yosef Jacobovitch, Esq, and Toms River Realtor Alan Seeland.

The Commissioners are being tasked to "examine and appraise the lands, premises, property, rights or easements [taken for public purpose] and to fix the compensation to be paid therefore."

The Report of Commissioners is due on or before Friday, March 17, 2023.

The County needs about 30 days to put this condemnation package together. Once that is complete, SK Lakewood Associates will be served written 10 days notice prior to the time and place the Commissioners will meet and set the compensation to be paid.

Judge Wellerson noted that if SK Lakewood Associates is unhappy with their determination, they can seek a trial by jury.

This Court Order gets this long awaited traffic signal project back on track.

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