Jackson Township Attorney Jerry Dasti Esq. is fighting hard in court to keep the Township's land swap with Lakewood developer Mordechai Eichorn valid and in effect.

He wrote in his legal filing that instead of challenging the land swap in court, the unhappy neighbors "have their remedy at the ballot box."

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 developer 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.

At the Township Council meeting, 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.

Oddly, the council members responded simply by urging residents to "speak to Bellevue Estates and ask them to work on the roadway improvements that they discussed tonight," and to "also show up and speak up at their future land use board meetings."

Subsequently, as the news was first broken here on FAA News, back in March 2023, residents who are opposed to the swap, represented by Attorney Jan Meyer Esq., filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the proposal.

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."

According to the suit:

Pursuant to State Statute, for a municipality to swap lands with a private individual, any land or rights or interests therein to be exchanged by the county or municipality shall be valued at not less than the amount for which it was acquired or in the case of an acquisition by gift or devise, in an amount of not less than the "full and fair value" of the land or rights or interests therein as determined by the assessor of the municipality in which it is located for the tax year in which the land was acquired by the county or the municipality.

In addition, the land exchanged "which shall be conveyed to the county or municipality in exchange for any county or municipal lands or rights or interests therein shall be valued at no more than the "full and fair value" determined for the land or rights or interests therein by the assessor of the municipality in the land or rights or interests therein is located for the then current tax year."

In other words, a land swap is legal if - and only if - the municipality receives land of at least value equal to or exceeding the value of the municipal land in the current tax year, as well as value exceeding the value of the municipal land in the year it was acquired.

The Ordinances contain a bare recitation, without support, that "the Township has determined that the properties are of substantially equal value."

Upon information and belief, at no point was there any testimony or hearing regarding the value of the two properties.

The proposed Contract of Sale, which was attached to the Ordinance, includes a statement that an appraisal was performed by the Township Appraiser, who determined that the Subject Property is valued at $4.1 million, and the Municipal Lands were valued at $4.4 million, but that certain deductions must be made from the value of the Municipal Lands, such that the value of the two lands were equal.

Upon information and belief, the appraisal reports were not attached to the Ordinance, nor were they made available to the public.

Upon information and belief, the appraisal reports dramatically understand the value of the Municipal Lands, and/or overstate the value of the Subject Property.

Further, upon information and belief, the Ordinances do not make any findings as to the valuation of the Municipal Lands in the year they were acquired, as required by statue.

In the First Count, the lawsuit alleges that the adoption of the Ordinances was arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable, as the Ordinances do not adhere to Statue.

In the Second Count, the lawsuit asserts that under the Local Government Ethics Law, Mayor Reina should have recused himself from the matter as, "upon information and belief he has a close, personal relationship with the principal of Bellevue Estates."

In the Third Count, the lawsuit alleges charges under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination:

Upon information and belief, the Township of Jackson has a long history of discrimination against Jewish people, and in particular, Jewish schools.

In fact, the Township is a party to a Consent Order with the U.S. Department of Justice. In said action, the Department of Justice alleged, inter alia, that the Township applied zoning ordinances that intentionally target religious schools... so that it will be impossible or nearly impossible for religious schools... to operate in the Township," in essence, to discriminate and target persons of Orthodox Jewish faith.

In the course of seeking to settle said action, the Township agreed to a settlement that permitted schools, including religious schools, in many areas of the Township.

Upon information and belief, the areas around the Subject Property is not an area where many Orthodox Jews reside.

Upon information and belief, the areas around the Municipal Lands are heavily concentrated with Orthodox Jews.

Upon information and belief, the Municipal Defendants adopted the exchange of lands at issue in this matter for the improper purpose of avoiding the construction of Orthodox Jews do not presently reside.

Upon information and belief, the Municipal Defendants adopted the exchange of lands at issue in this matter for the improper purpose of seeking to avoid Orthodox Jews spreading to live in new areas of Jackson.

The adoption of the exchange of lands for such improper purpose violates the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

The Plaintiffs protect the interest of the protected class of Orthodox Jews.

In the Fourth Count, the lawsuit alleges that the adoption of the Ordinances constitute a deprivation of the Plaintiffs federally protected rights, including inter alia, the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process clauses of the Federal Constitution.

Since the filing of the lawsuit, the parties have consented to withdrawing Mayor Reina from the suit after Township Attorney Jerry Dasti Esq. 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.

The Township and Mr. Eichorn, represented by Attorney Donna Jennings Esq., have recently filed Motions for Summary Judgement, providing documentation that the Township did obtain a proper appraisal which shows that the properties are of equal value, approximately $4 million. As such, they are attempting to purport that because the land swap was of equal value, obviously the anti-semitism claims are not worthy as municipalities are legally permitted to do land swaps as long as the appraisals are of equal value.

This legal filing is astounding as, as previously reported here on FAA News, the Township Clerk has refused OPRA 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 - apparently admitting to the lawsuit's claims that the Township never got the appraisals upon which their ordinance claims they relied!

Curious minds wonder where the Township was hiding the appraisal when they received OPRA requests to release the appraisals.

The Law Office of Attorney Jan Meyer Esq. is one of those with such a curious mind.

As previously reported here on FAA News, Mr. Meyer's firm has filed opposition to the motions for summary judgment filed by the Township and Mr. Eichorn, as well as a cross-motion for partial summary judgement.

The Opposition/Cross-Motion strongly questions how the Township's appraiser could have valued Eichorn's property at $4.1 million being that he purchased it in June 2021 for $1.5 million dollars!

"There is nothing in the record herein explaining this disparity in value. The sole recognition of this nearly 275% increase in value is Henry J. Mancini’s blanket statement, without explanation, that he has “considered” the sale price in the valuation."

Another issue that the neighbors are arguing is that Mr. Mancini's report is a "Restricted Appraisal
Report," which are heavily restricted in their usage, and, as discussed in depth infra, wholly improper for the Council to have relied upon, as a matter of law, to establish the respective values of the Subject Properties.

An even bigger concern is that the first time these appraisals were made available to the public or the Plaintiffs was when the Township filed it in court. This is a fact because when the Plaintiffs requested it in an OPRA request, the Township Clerk replied that the Township does not have any such report.

As the Township Clerk did not have the reports on record, it's obvious that the Council did not even receive a copy of the reports, which their Ordinance purports to be relying on.

"It is difficult to image a more arbitrary process to establish the value of a property than the entity being charged with establishing such value not even reviewing the single piece of evidence of such value."

Finally, the Opposition/Cross-Motion highlights that the use of Mr. Mancini's report for the purpose that the Township used it for was improper as the report was improperly issued as a restricted report, not a standard report. A restricted report is appropriate only for limited purposes, and contains far less information than a standard report. A standard Appraisal report summarizes the appraiser’s conclusion. A Restricted Appraisal Report simply states the conclusion, without even having sufficient information to qualify as a “summary."

Township Attorney Jerry Dasti Esq. has now filed Opposition to this Cross-Motion, arguing that while the Plaintiffs object to the "form" of the appraisals, they did not present any evidence to contest the legitimate findings in the appraisals.

Mr. Dasti wrote:

While the appraisals received by Mr. Mancini support the Township's determinations and are evidential, they are not dispositive of this issue. The issue to determine whether the ordinances are legitimate and therefore must be upheld is determined Statue, which is amplified and verified by the Certification of the Tax Assessor.

The experience and expertise of the tenured Tax Assessor cannot be questioned in any manner. In this regard, he is above reproach and certainly the evidence is clear and uncontroverted.

Even after this late stage of the litigation, there is absolutely no evidence that the values set forth in the Mancini appraisal are incorrect. Plaintiff only complains about the "form" of the appraisals.

They also assert - with no proof - that the Township Council never reviewed this appraisal.

The contract agreement states that Eichorn's property is more advantageous to the Municipality for public use than the land which the Municipality is giving Eichorn. Additionally, "it is in the public interest that such exchange of lands be consummated."

The Township intends to utilize the acquired as open space, for the benefit of the Township and its residents.

We respectfully suggest that it is not for this Court to determine or contest the discretionary decisions made by the Township in determining what is best for the "public interest."

Keeping all this in mind, it cannot reasonably be asserted that the actions of the Township could possibly be arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. The Plaintiff is seeking nothing more than to have the Court make its own determination of value and, despite providing nothing to support such a finding, to go even one step further and have the Court substitute its judgement for that of the Township Council. We respectfully suggest that it is not in the Court's purview to overturn this unanimous decision of the Township Council in as much as there is no evidence or allegation of improper activities. There is no material fact in issue. The Township adopted an Ordinance that is fully supported by the record. The Plaintiffs simply disagree with the Ordinance and the Council's decision. Their remedy is at the ballot box, not in the Superior Court.

Judge Valter Must is scheduled to hold oral arguments on the motions next Friday, September 8, 2023.

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1 comment:

001 said...

I have faith in Judge Must.