MONTCLAIR, NJ – Montclair Planning Board member Martin Schwartz took a jab at township officials during the meeting on Tuesday night, criticizing them for "improper actions" and dropping the ball, which he alleged, resulted in an applicant potentially receiving more units per acre that what was intended in the redevelopment plan.
On Thursday, Township Officials responded, denying any wrongdoing.
The statement, read as follows:
"The Township Council and administration are deeply concerned with Mr. Schwartz’s assertions and suggestions of misconduct on the part of elected officials, Township staff, and members of land use boards, and with the gross factual errors in his statement. To begin, the Township Council denies any wrongdoing by its members involving the 37 Orange Road project. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence that any Township
employee or board member acted to further private interests rather than the public good. Mr. Schwartz’s claim that he arrived at his conclusion “after talking to almost every Council member” falsely implies that Council members agreed with his allegations, which is simply not true. At no time has the Council or administration alleged or suggested that any improper conduct occurred with respect to the property at issue.
Moreover, contrary to Mr. Schwartz’s assertions and insinuations, the Manager did conduct an investigation as to the circumstances of publication and posting of the proposed redevelopment plan amendment, and as to whether anyone, Township official, employee or member of the public, had interfered or attempted to interfere with the process. The investigation resulted in no finding of wrongdoing, which was in fact communicated to the Council by the Manager, although the details of the investigation remained confidential.
Previously, in March 2019, Mr. Schwartz made many of the same speculations and charges of misconduct in an email to members of the governing body and administration. As required by long-standing New Jersey procedure, his message was promptly referred to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. The same was done with the video of Mr. Schwartz’s September 9 remarks and a written version of those remarks sent to Council members today by Mr. Schwartz. Because the matter is in the hands of the Prosecutor, the Township will have no further comment at this time."
Schwartz then issued a response stating that he stands by his comments, saying, "...the MC Residence developers got over on our Township and will likely get unintended density of units seemingly not agreed to by both the Council and Planning Board. Therefore, they will gain substantial added profits."
He continued, "I stand by my opinions and assertions derived after reviewing the fact history and after conversations with many involved -- including Township Councilors."
Schwartz added, "If there was an investigation, the results could have and should have been made public. To clear up this imbroglio. Instead, no investigation outcome was reported publicly by the Manger, or even that one had been conducted. That the matter was resolved. That it was really just a mistake, a drafting error. Especially since the Planning Board site review was clearly coming and the density issue still open."
The controversy started during the September 9 planning board meeting, in which, Schwartz criticized Township officials over the Montclair Center Gateway Redevelopment Plan and a proposed 46-unit development for the area.
During the meeting, Schwartz said, "In my opinion, it is a disgrace that we are sitting here tonight considering a site plan that has a density level by right now that appears to give this applicant many more of units per acre than what our Township Council intended in the redevelopment Plan, 72 it appears --and not what this planning board recommended back to them after reviewing the Council’s proposed amended plan."
He continued, "Both we and the Council originally seemed to agree to only 18 per acre. And that is not what we now have to consider here this evening based on how our government has handled this application."
Initially, Schwartz stated that he thought it was a mis-edit, but he stated that, after speaking with council members, he thought the changes were intentional. Schwartz continued saying, "...my understanding now, from talking to almost every town Councilor, is that there may have been some intentionality that cause this situation. Intentionally by an individual or individuals, and not just a drafting mistake; the result of which has distorted the will of our official decision-making bodies."
Schwartz further asserted that Township officials had engaged in "...some improper actions may have taken place. Therefore, at least the appearance of an intentional effort to give this applicant more units than what the deciding bodies wanted."
"The results of this mishap may now be hundreds of thousands of dollars in added value -- if not millions they are now able to gain."
During the meeting, attorney for the applicant, Tom Trautner, asserted that the 18-unit density limit was not applicable to MC Residences because the application is for a mixed-use unit, stating that the redevelopment plan calls for a maximum of 72 units per acre with a mixed-use plan.
Schwartz stated that, "But beyond that the Township manager was supposed to conduct a full investigation and then report back to the Council."
However, to date, Schwartz alleges that investigation and subsequent report hasn't happened.
He challenged Township manager Tim Stafford publicly during the meeting, calling for the report and asserting that the applicant has taken "advantage of the situation."
"They have taken advantage of a drafting incongruity between the paragraph
heading and the wording within which impacts the number of units they can seek. They then rushed in their application to capitalize."
On Sept. 25, 2018, an amendment to correct the language on the council agenda was pulled. Then on July 17, zoning board members voted unanimously to interpret the plan to allow for the 46-unit development to proceed.
"Our Council then apparently believed they were legally boxed in and did not make any further clarification and plan change. They let the matter go off to the Boards. When this first incongruity came before us, on advice of our counsel, this body passed the
matter over to the zoning board for interpretation."
The zoning board's approval, then allowed the application to be sent back to the planning board to be heard on September 9.
Schwartz, who had not attended that hearing, watched the tape afterward, and asserted, "In my opinion the ZBA was steered and practically directed by their lawyer then to vote for applicants POV of more units per acre – but based on what appeared to me was incorrect information. Incorrect information their own attorney presented. The zoning board attorney told them that the town Council could have changed the impacting redevelopment plan back to a lower density at any point in time during the past 9 months."
He added, "That they could have amended the density language if they so choose. But they didn’t. So the zoning board had to vote to use the language within the paragraph body they were advised – not the heading in conflict -- giving the applicant many more units for their application."
Schwartz further stated that he was told that the Council believed it could not act at that time because they believed the time of application rule was in effect even when the mishap was caught.
"Even during the period the applicant’s application was deemed incomplete by the planning department. So the Zoning Board members too, may have been incorrectly advised."
"But according to our own attorney, once the Council did not use the window it did have to
make a change, a time of application rule then went into force. So the Council did not really have 8 months to make a correction as zoning board members were advised. The Council only had a short window in September of 2018 to make a change. Maybe 30 days. And it appears zoning board members were then advised – as the basis for their decision."
Schwartz ended his pubic statement calling for a full investigation by Stafford and a
"Any time the legislative will of both the governing body and the decision making board with oversight is circumvented by possible actions of town staff – someone needs
to identify what happened. The town needs to tell our governing body exactly what happened here. So Councilors know for the future whether this really was really a mistake, or whether there was any impropriety or whether actions or changes are needed for the future," he continued.