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An item on today's Lakewood Township Committee agenda highlights two very important lessons regarding our land use boards and the conditions they do - and can - impose on even minor applications.

The High Point Condominium Development on Prospect Street and Massachusetts Avenue contains a total of 264 apartments.

Way back when High Point was originally designed, plans were drawn to build an additional 136 apartments in the adjacent forest.

Eventually the founders of High Point realized that they would not construct the second phase of buildings. At that point they granted ownership rights of the forest to the owners of the condominium apartments, based on the number of apartments they owned (i.e. someone who owns 10 condominium apartments now also owns the rights to 10 apartments in the forest).

Somehow, the successor in interest failed to pay real estate taxes on the unbuilt units. In 1980, Lakewood Township ultimately foreclosed on tax sale certificates and took title to the unbuilt units.

At some later point, the property owners decided to sell off the forest and began the process of researching the deed. At that point they discovered that foreclosure and the matter landed up in court.

In Trial Court, High Point lost all their claims. However, way up in the Appellate Division, the property owners reached a settlement with the Township whereby the forest would be sold at a public auction to the highest bidder and a certain percentage of the sale would go to the Township to cover the unpaid taxes. The sale was to be coordinated by the Township, so that the tax money would first reach the Township before the property owners would get to keep the rest.

The only technical matter to be resolved was that the entire parcel of land, including both the constructed High Point development, as well as the undeveloped forest, had never been subdivided. As a condition of the grand settlement and to enable the sale of the forest, the developers agreed to seek Subdivision approval from the Lakewood Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Ocean County Planning Board.

The Lakewood Zoning Board application was presented in March 2020. The Board members noted that although the subdivision application appeared to be variance-free, a Use Variance did need to be granted to confirm that the existing apartment buildings could remain in the RM zoning district.

In return of the affirmation of this Use Variance, Board members urged the developers to do a generous deed and give back to High Point by providing a playground, additional parking, and security lighting and cameras. The developers tried to push back, saying that High Point existed until now without all these amenities so they thought that things could remain as they were. The Board members urged them to discuss the matter with the police department before returning to the next public hearing.

Somehow, the developers then got Police Captain Steven Allaire to sign the below letter that confidently assured the Board that a few security lights and cameras were all that High Point needed.

The letter even emphasizes exactly what the developers also told the Board, which is that "the eventual development of the currently wooded lot is likely to decrease crime in the area. Developing that land will eliminate a hiding place and escape route that many criminals, especially drug dealers, currently use!"

The police department did not mention any playgrounds or parking (because, of course, the developers did not tell them that the Board requested those kinds of things...).

Either way, seeing that the police department did agree to sign the letter they were given, the Zoning Board pulled back from requiring any playgrounds and parking areas, and stipulated simply that security lights and 20 cameras were to be installed post-auction, and that the developers were to execute a separate agreement with the Township that provides them with sufficient funds to ensure that the lighting and cameras are maintained for 3 years after the subdivision map is filled. (If after the 3-year period is over, the properties have remained in a safe and clean condition, then the escrow shall be returned to the developers.)

The Board also stipulated that prior to the filing of the Subdivision map, their Resolution of Approval was to be incorporated into a Developer's Agreement with the Township and filed with the Ocean County Clerk.

In other words, the installation of the cameras and lighting can wait until after the land is sold. However, the agreement for the post-sale installation of these cameras would need to be filed prior to filing of the subdivision map.

Not too shabby.

When the Subdivision application was presented, in April 2022, to the Ocean County Planning Board, things went way differently.

First, County officials stated that they were aware that just a month earlier, a parking lot and an access drive to Prospect Street were constructed on this property without County Planning Board approval and without a County Road Opening Permit. The County Planning Board therefore required - prior to the filing of the Subdivision map - that the developers submit a Site Plan to the Board identifying and formalizing all unapproved parking areas and access points.

Additionally, County officials stipulated that, prior to filing the Subdivision map, the developers needed to; 1) dimension the existing right-of-way half width and full width of both County roads on the plan, and if the half width is less than 33 feet from centerline, submit a deed of dedication and metes and bounds description for an additional right-of-way dedication to 33 feet from centerline to Ocean County, 2) submit a right-of-way dedication to Ocean County for a 45 degree angle corner clip at the intersection of the County roads, 3) submit a sight right easement form and metes and bounds description for sight triangle easements at the access points to County roads and at the County road intersection in accordance with County standards to Ocean County, 4) revise the plan to show easements and prior acquisitions by Ocean County, 5) revise the plans to show all existing features within 200 feet of the site, pavement half width and full width dimensions, and the newly constructed parking lot and access drive to Prospect Street, 6) identify the number of new parking spaces constructed in March 2022 and show anticipated parking, 7) remove the proposed parking from within 20 feet of the County right-of-way, 8) reconstruct all access points to the County road to be designed and built in accordance with Ocean County standards, and 9) pay an off-tract traffic improvements fee in an amount to be determined by the County Engineer.

Whoa! That sure is a whole lot of work to do just to be permitted to file the subdivision map.

On September 7, 2022, the developers wrote to the County that the existing non-conforming access from Massachusetts Avenue lies within the portion of the parcel which they are planning to sell, and which will anyways be redeveloped by the end users. Therefore they asked that condition #8 be removed.

At their September 21, 2022 public hearing, the County Planning Board responded that all existing access points to the property shall conform to County standards or be closed with full height six inch curb.

Finally, on January 19, 2023, the developers complied with all of the conditions of the approval. On February 1, 2023, the Ocean County Planning Board gave the go-ahead for the subdivision map to be filed.

Why is all of this important?

Because, the whole purpose of the filing of the subdivision map is so that the sale (and future development of the property) could advance.

Back on February 17, 2022 (which was before the submission of the subdivision application to the County Planning Board), the Township Committee adopted Ordinance #2022-006 which authorized the public sale of this land in accordance with the court settlement agreement. This ordinance required the buyer to close on the purchase within 30 days of the Township's acceptance of the high bid.

The public sale took place on March 30, 2022. Yehuda Dachs on behalf of Lennox Group, LLC submitted the high bid of $9,900,000.

A property sale agreement was subsequently executed between the Sellers High Point at Lakewood Condominium Association, Inc. and Lakewood Township and the Buyers Yehuda Dachs on behalf of Lennox Group, LLC.

This was the point when the High Point at Lakewood Condominium Association submitted their subdivision application to the Ocean County Planning Board.

Mr. Dachs was unable to close on the sale until the subdivision map was filed - which was held up due to all of the County Planning Board's conditions.

The subdivision map was finally filed in the Ocean County Clerk’s office on March 31, 2023.

Therefore, acknowledging that "this delay is through no fault of the successful bidder to close title but rather a result of the legal requirement that the property could not be sold until such time as the subdivision was perfected by way of filing of the subdivision map; and that the successful bidder has proceeded to expend time, resources, and money in anticipation of the Township and High Point Condominium Association receiving subdivision approval and recognizes the time required to obtain subdivision approval varies from application to application," the Township Committee is set to formally extend time for the successful bidder to close title now for an additional 60 days.

So what's the takeaway?

Two things:

1) Thanks to the Ocean County Planning Board, the closing of the sale of this property, and the future development of this property, was delayed until now

2) It is inaccurate for the Township's land use boards to say that they can't require any conditions, such as installation of sidewalk, prior to the filing of a subdivision map

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