Hamilton Street Developer Claims Politics Is Behind Plan To Scuttle Apartment Complex

A Hamilton Street developer is suing the Township over claims that political pressure scuttled an apartment building project targeted for the Hamilton Business District.

The developer, John Park, claims in the suit that after township officials became aware of his project – comprised of two four-story buildings holding 233 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments and retail space, and a covered parking deck – Township Councilman Carl Wright (D-Ward 4) put the kibosh on it.

Wright declined to comment for this story.

The suit was filed in December 2022, and names the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Adjustment and township Principal Planner Mark Healey as defendants.

In their responses, filed on January 9, attorneys for the township boards and Healey denied any wrongdoing on their clients’ part.

At the crux of the controversy is a zoning ordinance change passed by the Township Council in April, 2022, that removed some land from the Hamilton Street Business District and placed it into the R-7 Zone, a residential zone.

The parcel that was removed included land that Park was going to buy from the Levin Company to build part of his project. The rest of the project is targeted for an adjacent plot, now the home of a strip shopping center.

Because the one parcel was rezoned, Park would have to take his application to the Zoning Board, rather than the Planning Board, for site plan and use variance approval.

In the suit, the developer claims that he had had been preparing the project since February of 2022.

“Upon learning of Plaintiff’s anticipated application, however, at least one council member appeared to have political motivations to obstruct Plaintiff’s efforts and, ultimately, to completely prohibit the development Plaintiff had invested in,” the lawsuit alleges. “While politics undoubtedly has its place in the application of local zoning laws and the review of site development plans, this lawsuit arose when the underlying motivations among Township officials have seemingly precluded the entire review of Plaintiff’s application based on contrived – and undoubtedly arbitrary and capricious – justifications.”

“Shortly after Franklin Township officials learned of the Project, HSH was informed that the council member for Ward 4 of the Township, where the Property was located, was politically motivated to oppose the Project,” the suit alleges. “From February 2022 to April 26, 2022, HSH was informed that the council member for Ward 4 undertook efforts to enact an ordinance that would effectively block the Project.”

The Council gave final approval to the zoning change at its April 26, 2022 meeting.

The lawsuit states that plans for the project were submitted to the Planning Board four days before the Council gave the zoning change final approval.

“Accordingly, under well-established State law, the new ordinance did not apply to Plaintiff’s application, which retained its right to proceed toward Planning Board approvals,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says that a month after the submission, Healey wrote the developer a letter stating that the application was incomplete, due mainly to technical issues.

“The Planning Director stated that the application failed to account for waste disposal, only a few days later to admit that he was wrong about that deficiency,” the lawsuit alleges. “He then cited a
typographical error in connection with a four-story garage that was referenced as a ‘five-story garage’ because the applicable ordinance only permitted a four-story building, but then abandoned that basis, presumably because the architectural submissions clearly proposed a four-story garage. He then reasoned that the application failed to identify existing trees and how many would need to be replaced upon development, when in fact the site plan maps dedicated numerous pages toward tree conservation plans, drawings for existing wooded areas, and how the removed trees would be replaced in accordance with applicable ordinances.”

Healey then told the developer that he would have to abide by the new zoning ordinance because he would have to provide new information that post-dates the ordinance’s approval date, the suit alleges.

“All of the Purported Application Deficiencies were either based on typographical errors or errors by the Planning Director in failing to consider the full contents of HSH’s Application,” the lawsuit alleges.

“Seemingly captive to political forces, the Planning Director declared that, because he now deemed the Application incomplete, the New Ordinance that was designed for the very purpose of blocking the Project now governed the Project, thereby effectively prohibiting the Project from proceeding,” teh lawsuit alleges.

An appeal to the Zoning Board went unanswered during the statutory 120-day period, the suit alleges, resulting in an automatic granting of the appeal, according to the state’s Municipal Land Use Law.

“Accordingly, as of October 20, 2022, HSH was automatically awarded a favorable decision on its appeal under N.J.S.A. 40:55D-73, effectively voiding the Planning Director’s June 2, 2022 Decision and voiding all of the Purported Application Deficiencies,” the lawsuit alleges.

The developer noticed both Boards about its assertion of automatic approval, and asked that the application be placed on the Planning Board’s agenda, according to the suit. Instead, the Zoning Board announced a December 1, 2022 meeting to discuss HSH’s application, according to the lawsuit.

“Because HSH already received an automatic favorable decision on its appeal under State law, HSH informed the Zoning Board of Adjustment that HSH was not consenting to an extension of time for the Board to consider the appeal,” the lawsuits states.

Park said that the delays in the township hearing his application are costing him money, and presenting teh store owners in teh strip mall with an uncertain future.

“All this time my project is sitting there, I’m losing money all the time they’re waiting,” he said. “All the tenants have made arrangements to move out … I said I would give you money to go to a nicer area, if you can’t afford it, I’ll build you out.”

“If you just look at the facts and the law, they know that it’s wrong, they don’t care if we waste taxpayer money,” Park said.

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