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In a big win for Spruce Street residents, Lakewood Township officials have resumed discussion with developer Menachem Gutfreund over possibly swapping land with him, which would result in his Spruce Street property remaining open space, FAA News has learned.

As a result, Mr. Gutfreund is adjourning the public hearing on his Zoning Board application for houses on a portion of this site. Mr. Gutfreund has also already adjourned the public hearing on his Planning Board application for a child care center on another portion of this site.

The saga began back in January 2019 when Mr. Gutfreund submitted an application to the Zoning Board for 6 homes on one lot, and 4 homes on the other lot. The Township's zoning ordinances permit only 2 single family homes in this zone.

Numerous neighbors flocked to the Board's public hearing to plead with the Board to deny the requested Use Variance.

Board member Obed Gonzales worked very hard to approve the application, so much so that when Abby Hirsch, a neighbor who was opposed to the application, stated that Mr. Gonzales should recuse himself as he had just started working for a company which was under Mr. Hirsch's control, Mr. Gonzales immediately announced that he is resigning from working for that company!

The Zoning Board ultimately denied that application.

In October 2019, Mr. Gutfreund submitted a "much reduced application" for only 9 homes on these lots. Immediately, the neighbors retained Attorney Jan Meyer Esq. to file emergent legal action in Chancery Court objecting to the Board’s hearing the Second Application because, inter alia, of a conflict of interest involving Chairman Abe Halberstam and Mr. Gutfreund.

Specifically, a corporation owned, operated and/or controlled by Mr. Gutfreund was, at the time, constructing a home for Chairman Halberstam’s children!

Subsequently, Mr. Gutfreund met with the neighbors and he agreed to withdraw the Second

Thereafter, in 2020, Mr. Gutfreund returned with a revised application to construct 6 single family homes on only one of the lots, Block 837 Lot 1. This is a 60,000 sq foot lot so 1.09 homes would be permitted on that lot.

The neighbors were represented by Attorney Meyer who opposed the application and asked for a minor adjournment of the hearing so he could bring an expert to testify regarding the application.

The Board ignored this request, and approved a reduced plan of 4 single family homes on 15,000 sq foot lots each.

Due to his conflict with Mr. Gutfreund which was previously exposed in Chancery Court, Mr. Halberstam was not present at that application.

Subsequently, on December 8, 2020, Mr. Meyer filed a Complaint in Lieu of Prerogative Writs seeking to overturn the Board's approval. The four-count lawsuit included a charge that the Board violated the statutory requirements of notice and availability of documents set forth in the Emergency Remote Meeting Protocol for Local Public Bodies.

In January 2022, Judge Ford granted summary judgement to the neighbors and tossed out the Board's approval.

In February 2023, as first reported here on FAA News, Mr. Gutfreund again charged on with his development dreams for his property, with an application to the Planning Board for a 2-story plus finished basement child care center, with a capacity of 350 children. This application is for Block 837 Lot 1, which is the site of the 2020 overturned Zoning Board approval.

Child care centers are a permitted use in the zone and therefore don't require a Use Variance from the Zoning Board, however, the Township does not have a set parking requirement for child care centers, which gives the neighbors leeway to oppose the application.

As soon as the neighbors received notice of the application, they retained Attorney Meyer to represent their opposition.

Subsequently, some discussion began with Township officials regarding the possibility of the Township swapping land with Mr. Gutfreund so that the Spruce Street property can remain open space, and possibly even one day turned into a public playground.

Due to these pending discussions, as previously reported here on FAA News back in April, Attorney Matthew Fiorovanti Esq. representing Mr. Gutfreund requested that the child care center application be adjourned until further notice.

This application has not been brought back to the Board in the time since then.

It appears that at some point thereafter, the land swap discussions with the Township went south, because, as previously reported here on FAA News, Mr. Gutfreund then submitted an application to the Zoning Board for a Use Variance for 6 single family homes on Block 831 Lot 1, which is across from the proposed child care center lot.

In response, as previously reported here on FAA News, the neighbors retained Attorney Meyer to represent their opposition to this application as well.

Mr. Meyer wrote to the Board, reminding them that "as in the past, Chairman Abraham Halberstam must be recused from hearing this application. The reason for this request and demand is due to what appear to be a clear conflict of interest."

At the Board's previous public hearing on July 10, Mr. Gutfreund requested to carry the application to tonight's public hearing.

To much applause from the neighbors, discussions with Township officials regarding the possibility of the Township swapping land with Mr. Gutfreund have resumed. As such, Mr. Gutfreund will be adjourning the public hearing on his Zoning Board application.

The neighbors are hopeful that the Township will cooperate and enable this Spruce Street property to remain open space, and possibly even one day turned into a public playground.

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