BERNARDS, NJ - A former Planning Board member has filed a lawsuit in the Islamic mosque planning case.
Jeffrey Plaza, the former Planning Board chairman who is an attorney, filed the suit for himself on Oct. 5 in Somerset County in the Superior Court Law Division. Plaza voted against site plan approval in December 2015 and later resigned from the board in May 2017.
The lawsuit appeals the board’s August adoption of preliminary and final site plan approval of the mosque, following a federal court judgment, “due to actual and/or apparent conflicts of interest on a majority of the board members who voted in favor…”
The board’s granting of the planning approval was compromised because board members should have been prohibited by law to vote in the matter, the suit maintains.
Plaza’s suit asks the court to reverse the Planning Board’s approval, declare the resolution illegal and null and void, and order new planning hearings on a new site plan application without participation of board members Plaza claims were “conflicted.”
The two defendants, the Bernards Township Planning Board and the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, would be expected to file an answer within 35 days of filing.
The Planning Board on Aug. 22 approved the final memorialization of a legal settlement of a long-standing dispute over the building of a mosque in the Liberty Corner area of the township. The board unanimously approved a resolution memorializing its Aug. 8 approval of a revised site plan for the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge to demolish an existing structure and build a 4,252-square-foot worship center for a maximum of 150 persons on 4.09 acres in a residential area at 124 Church St.
Plaza, who had just been reappointed as Planning Board chairman in January 2017, resigned from the board effective May 18, prior to a vote on the mosque settlement. Two other board members, Paula Axt and Leon Harris, also resigned on that date, township officials said. The terms of the settlement, approved by a majority of Township Committee and Planning Board members, minus the three who had resigned, was publicly released on May 30.
The Islamic Society initially applied for site plan approval in April 2012. The Planning Board held 39 hearings on the application, which was denied by the Planning Board in December 2015. In March 2016 the ISBR filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, and the federal Department of Justice intervened in November 2016. A settlement with the DOJ was reached in late May.
As part of the settlement, the township was directed to pay a total of $3.25 million in damages and legal fees to the ISBR.
The suit notes the settlement agreement included a general release from legal liability to the Township Committee and Planning Board as municipal entities and all the members individually. Plaza’s suit claims that Mayor Carolyn Gaziano, Kathleen Pedici, Township Committeeman James Baldassare and Scott Ross were conflicted board members because “each had an impermissible conflict of interest by virtue of their anticipated receipt of the release of any and all claims against them individually” only if they voted for the settlement site plan and accompanying documents. They all voted for the settlement memorialization Aug. 22.
The action violated the state ethics and municipal land use laws, the suit claims, because each had a personal interest.
As part of the legal settlement, the ISBR agreed to remove 31 parking spaces on the eastern side of the lot and move a proposed detention basin out of a designated buffer area. The agreement reduces the amount of parking to 50 paved slots and an overflow lot for 14 cars. The location of a 7,500-square-foot detention basin was one of the factors cited in the board’s initial denial.
The board also had concerns that the internal traffic flow on the site could create an unsafe condition for drop-off and pickup of children during Sunday school, and that fire trucks might be unable to maneuver easily due to the configuration of the parking stalls.