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Jackson Township's Mayor Mike Reina was not too long ago holding the victory crown the night the Council approved his land swap with Mordechai Eichorn.

However, this land swap is now in some serious jeopardy as the plan is reliant on another Lakewood developer selling land to the Township, and, it turns out, that property owner is vehemently refusing to sell his property or to permit the Township to take the land by way of condemnation, FAA News has learned.

Back in October 2022, as previously reported here on FAA News, the Jackson Planning Board heard testimony on a proposal an application submitted by Bellevue Estates, LLC, which is owned by Lakewood resident Mordechai Eichorn, to build 4 schools on a 30-acre parcel of land at 443 Leesville Road between Burke and Diamond Road.

Thereafter, as previously reported here on FAA News, Mayor Reina broke the news that in order "to protect existing neighborhoods within Jackson Township and to protect and honor the rights of all Jackson residents," he "successfully negotiated to acquire Eichorn's farm [to keep it for open space]."

This acquisition was to take place in the form of a land swap for Township owned land near the Lakewood Cross Street border.

As previously reported here on FAA News, back in February 2023, the Council unanimously approved the proposed land swap.

It turns out though that the subsequent "paperwork" has not been progressing as planned, which is now causing havoc to the land swap proposal.

The Township's proposal included for Eichorn to receive 4 lots which were not actually owned by the Township. Township officials apparently intended to purchase these lots and then to give them to Eichorn.

However, it turns out that the owner of two of those lots is refusing to sell his lots to the Township.

Township Attorney Jerry Dasti Esq. is not taking this matter sitting down. As previously reported here on FAA News, with the Township Council's authorization, he filed legal action in New Jersey Superior Court in Ocean County seeking to take the properties under the condemnation process.

Municipalities are permitted, pursuant to State Statute, to take lands by way of condemnation, if they can assert that the taking of the land is for a "public purpose."

Mr. Dasti wrote in his court filing that the taking is for a public purpose as the Township needs the land for "open space."

One of the lots is 0.34 acres in area. The current owner purchased it in 2015 for $9,000 from Keith and Arlene Rossmeissl. The Township has now offered him $82,000 for the vacant property.

The other lot is 0.31 acres in area. The current owner purchased it in 2022 for $19,975 from Judith Folkes, Executor of the Estate of Adele Kelsey. The Township has now offered him $75,000 for the vacant property.

The Township offered these prices after receiving an appraisal of these values.

"The Township has determined that it needs to acquire the entire property to affect a land exchange for the preservation of open space. The Township is authorized to proceed under the Eminent Domain Act to acquire property as it shall deem necessary," wrote Mr. Dasti in separate Complaints.

Mr. Dasti's proposed Orders seek judgement determining and adjudging that the Township is authorized to and has duly exercised its power of eminent domain with respect to the property; and appointing 3 disinterested residents of Ocean County to fix the compensation to be paid to Defendant for the taking of the property.

It turns out, however, that the property owner is also not taking the matter sitting down.

The property owner has retained Roseland Attorney Richard P. DeAngelis Esq. to oppose the condemnation taking.

Mr. DeAngelis wrote to the Court:

While a municipality is authorized to take private property, such taking must be for a valid public use. The law demands more than just a bald assertion that property is needed. There must be an unambiguous public record in support of the purported need for an proposed use of the property. The right of a property owner to contest a taking is grounded in the State and federal constitutions. Recognizing the awesome and intrusive power of condemnation to deprive property rights, our courts demand strict adherence to the Eminent Domain Act and the enabling legislation, in this case, the Local Land and Buildings Law.

Here, the record is devoid of any direct evidence of a valid public use of my client's properties. The ordinance authorizing the acquisition suggests in the preamble that it is for open space, to promote and protect the health, safety and welfare of residents of the Township. However, there are no specific findings related to such purported use. Additionally, there is no reference to any studies or reports regarding the need for open space.

In fact, it is clear the property will not be used for open space as the Township seeks to take my client's properties to exchange it - along with other Township owned lots - to a private developer, Bellevue Estates, for land owned by Bellevue. By way of this exchange, the Township seeks to stop the development of religious schools in areas of the Township where such use is permitted "as of right" under the Township's Land Use Development Regulations.

As to my client's properties, it is presumed that the religious schools would be built there although such use is not permitted under the Township's land use regulations. Although, Bellevue is not constrained by its agreement for such use so it appears it may use the property as it sees fit, subject to local zoning. Moreover, the proposed exchange has been changed in a pending lawsuit. Finally, there is nothing in the public record regarding the Township's proposed use of Bellevue's lands.

My client has an absolute right to challenge the Township's power to take its property by eminent domains. Such a challenge demands a searching inquiry by this Court to determine whether the attempted taking is pursuant to all statutory and constitutional requirements.

In the 1995 case of Borough of Essex Fells v. Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, the Borough sought to condemn land for the purpose of building a public park. The court blocked the condemnation on the basis that the Borough's Master Plan and public meetings revealed no need for additional parkland; instead, public statements made clear that the condemnation was intended to stymie the construction of a politically unpopular rehabilitation center.

The Township has failed to articulate a valid public use for the subject property - The articulation of a present public use to justify a condemnation is the essential first step in determining whether a condemnor is exceeding its statutory authorization or operating in bad faith. A prospective condemnor must demonstrate why it is taking property at that time.

Here the Township has stated simply that it was in the public interest without any public record to support that assertion. To the extent it is for the Exchange with Bellevue, the Court must examine whether that is a valid public purpose or a pretext to achieve some other impermissible purpose to stop the development of a politically unpopular religious based school in the middle of the Township. Also, the agreement with Bellevue does not constrain his use of its newly acquired land, including my clients property, so it may be used for whatever purpose subject to appropriate land use approvals.

If the proposed use is in fact for the relocation of the schools, that would require that property to be rezoned which would constitute impermissible spot zoning, which is when a municipality seeks to relieve a particular property of the burden imposed by its zoning classification so as to benefit the lot owner or permit an incompatible use.

But here again, there is no record of the proposed "public use" of my client's property after the taking. Even if the Court were to look at the use of Bellevue's lands to be acquired by the Township under the exchange, there is no stated public use for those lands.

And, there is the issue of whether the proposed exchange is even legal as that question remains pending under the neighbor's lawsuit.

Right to evidentiary hearing - Finally, my client should be afforded an evidentiary hearing regarding his challenges to the proposed condemnation.

Therefore, the Court should decline to grant the relief requested by the Township and dismiss their condemnation filing. At the very least, the Court should hold off on granting of the condemnation and schedule an evidentiary hearing in which the Township may present additional proofs in support of its filing, subject to cross-examination by my client and my clients rights to present further proofs.

Facing this opposition from the property owner, Mr. Dasti has asked the court to adjourn the matter until after the summer so he can have ample time to respond to the opposition. Judge Hodgson has consented and adjourned the Order To Show Cause hearing to Friday, September 8.

At the Township Council's public hearing on the adoption of the land swap ordinance, numerous White Street residents who would be the neighbors of these new schools spoke up in fierce opposition to the land swap, citing the traffic safety concerns due to the narrow roads and lack of sidewalks. Neighbors also highlighted that there is no sewer in the area and planning schools for 1,000 students only on septic tanks does not sound like smart planning.

A number of residents suggested that Township officials look into creating a school zone in area which is appropriately "serviceable" with wider roads and utilities.

As the news was first broken here on FAA News, residents who are opposed to the swap filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the proposal. The lawsuit was filed by Attorney Jan Meyer Esq.

The 4-count lawsuit names as Defendants the Township Council, Mayor Reina, and Bellevue Estates, and contains an allegation that the land swap discriminates against their "Jewish neighborhood."

The lawsuit also asserts that the Township is Statutorily required to make a determination that properties in a land swap are of substantially equal value; the Township's ordinance contends that the Council relied on appraisal reports, however, the appraisal reports were not attached to the Ordinance, nor were they made available to the public.

As previously reported here on FAA News, the Township Clerk has refused requests to release the important appraisals which purports to show that the properties are of substantially equal value, saying that the Township simply does not have any such records - shockingly admitting to the lawsuit's claims that the Township never got the appraisals upon which their ordinance claims they relied!

Since the filing of the lawsuit, the parties have consented to withdrawing Mayor Reina from the suit after Mr. Dasti argued that the only portion of the lawsuit which specifically charged Reina is the Second Count which asserts that upon information and belief he has a close, personal relationship with the principal of Bellevue Estates, and appeals for enforcement of the Local Government Ethics Law must be made to the Local Finance Board in the Division of Local Government Services in the Department of Community Affairs and not to the Superior Court.

It remains to be seen if the land swap proposal will indeed be able to withstand all the hot water that it has landed in.

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