CRANFORD, NJ – A heated exchange took place during Tuesday night’s Cranford Township Committee meeting between the commissioners and representatives from Hartz Mountain regarding the outcome of the township’s recent court hearing to extend its immunity from the Mt. Laurel Doctrine.
According to the Cranford Township Committee, the township's motion was granted, thereby automatically denying Hartz’s motion to intervene.
“Last week the township was in Superior Court on its motion to amend its current Mt. Laurel immunity, and Hartz’s motion to intervene in that action,” Township Attorney Ryan J. Cooper said in a released statement. “The township is pleased to report that its motion was granted and Hartz’s motion was denied. While the Court did not grant the township all of the relief it sought, the Court reiterated that the township has immunity from Mt. Laurel lawsuits through the end of 2018. As the public is aware, the next day Hartz contacted the Township and requested that its redevelopment request be adjourned until at least October 24. I’ll emphasize that this adjournment pertains only to Hartz’s redevelopment request, not its application before the Planning Board. Overall, the township is very pleased with the outcome of the motion and the hard work of our outside counsel on the motion.
“Going forward, the township will amend its second-round Mt. Laurel plan through the Court process and will develop a plan to satisfy its third-round obligation, which will require Court-approval once it is ready. The township intends to fairly consider what role the 750 Walnut Avenue property should play in the township’s Mt. Laurel plan. The township remains committed to including the public’s input in its consideration of any potential redevelopment of the 750 Walnut Avenue site, and will advise the public accordingly.”
However, Hartz representative Jay Rhatican said the township's motion was denied and that Hartz’s motion was denied because it was rendered obsolete by the ruling.
“I was surprised to hear the committee say that the town’s motion has been granted,” Rhatican said. “I was in court that day and what I heard is the motion was denied. In fact, we have a court order that was on the motion that we had filed to intervene. That motion was of course denied as moot because the township’s motion also was denied.
I’ll read from it here: ‘Hartz’s motion to intervene was denied as moot as the township’s motion to amend round-three judgment purported of compliance is also denied,’” Rhatican read aloud. “I think we have a very obvious difference of opinion as to what the court said that day and is reflected in the court order.”
Mayor Thomas Hannen replied to Rhatican, saying the court documents will soon be available on cranford.com.
“I believe we are going to be making the transcript available on the web,” Hannen said. “I’m sure, even though I’m not an attorney, that that’s why we have an attorney, to argue the fine points.”
“I don’t see what fine points there are to discuss,” Rhatican said. “We’re happy to make the transcripts available to anyone who wants them as well.”
Documentation provided by Hartz Mountain shows that the motion was denied.
However, according to the court transcripts provided to TAPinto Cranford, the court granted the motion to the township to a certain extent. On page 28 of the transcript, Judge Camille M. Kenny stated that she grants the township’s motion only as to round two. She did not let the township go forward with a motion on its third-round obligation.
Hartz’s request should be considered by the township in its third-round obligation, she said.
As of now, the township continues to be granted the immunity that was previously established, which lasts until December 31, 2018. The next step requires the township to prove that they are meeting their affordable housing obligations through its own methods.
“We have to prove that our plan still meets our second-round obligation, even though the distribution of units in town is slightly different than it was envisioned to be in 2013,” Cooper said.
In simpler terms, the township’s current affordable housing plan was drafted in 2013 and includes 360 units on the Birchwood property. Since the township purchased the property and decreased the number of units, it must replace those units elsewhere. The court must approve those changes to further extend the township’s immunity.
As such, the township’s motion was partially granted and partially denied, as confirmed by commissioner Ann Dooley.
“I took a look at the orders,” Dooley said. “I am a lawyer; it was exactly what I expected to see. Each side submitted a nice, typed, formal order to the judge. She crossed them both out with her own pen where she fastened her own result in handwriting, which is a little hard to read. That’s why it’s incredibly important that as soon as we post those orders and the transcript, you read them so you can understand what went on and what the true intent of the judge’s decisions were that day. Please remember there were multiple motions and applications that she had to fit together like a zipper and lock them up. I think you’ll all be more confident once those things are posted.”
However, multiple residents attending the meeting were upset by the differences between sides and questioned the transparency of the township committee and of Hartz Mountain.
“I was a little bit disturbed by Mr. Rhatican’s assertation,” resident Eric Rubinson said to the committee. “It’s disturbing to me that there were such drastic differences as to what came out of that courtroom. Without transparency, I think it creates an environment for speculation on this conversation, and you have enough of that right now.”
The commissioners were quick to dismiss claims that they are not transparent. Prior to last week’s hearing, a Q & A with Hartz Mountain was placed on the agenda for Tuesday night’s meeting, Deputy Mayor Patrick Giblin reminded the audience. It was postponed at Hartz’s request last Wednesday.
“Keep in mind it was Hartz Mountain’s decision to delay our decision on this redevelopment,” Giblin said. “Many of the questions that you’re asking tonight were questions we were planning to ask them about proving to us that they had exhausted all efforts to keep the property zoned as non-residential. I get a sense that there’s a little bit of surrender and that [you think] it’s inevitable. It is not. There is much that Hartz Mountain has to demonstrate when they return on Oct. 24 or later.”
Documentation provided by Hartz Mountain can be viewed above. Township officials said they will upload documentation, including the transcripts, to the website shortly.
TAPinto Cranford will continue to update the story.