Middletown Residents Sue Township Over Redevelopment Process

March 21, 2018
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An aerial view of the 119-acre Moutain Hill property, where a 52-acre commercial complex is being proposed. The photo was taken from the shopping center across Route 35. The property stretches back to the beginning of the tree line. Image courtesy Fred Yahn

By Jay Cook |

MIDDLETOWN – A contingent of residents distressed about how 150-plus acres of land along Route 35 could be developed have taken a legal step they hope will protect their streets and environment.

Minding Middletown, LLC – a grassroots organization concerned with overdevelopment in the township – has filed a civil suit against Middletown’s Township Committee. The crux of the lawsuit is based on an “area in need of redevelopment” report approved by the governing body in December. Thirty-three properties and about 150 acres of semi-developed land along Route 35 North were studied.

In the lawsuit filed on Jan. 31 in Monmouth County Superior Court, obtained by The Two River Times through an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, Minding Middletown alleges the township’s governing body approved a flawed “area in need of redevelopment” report to ease development on land surrounding and including the Mountain Hill property. That parcel has been earmarked for development for nearly two decades.

Minding Middletown is seeking to invalidate Middletown’s redevelopment resolution, restrain the township from taking any further action on the study area and nullify any ordinance about a redevelopment plan for the area discussed. A formal plan has yet to be introduced.

The study, report and approved resolution is tied to one of Middletown’s last developable parcels – that 119-acre Mountain Hill property owned by the local Azzolina and Scaduto families. It’s been the talk of Middletown for nearly three years as Mountain Hill has looked to sell the land to commercial and residential developers for the construction of a shopping center and a townhome housing complex.

In recent months, an application has been proposed to the Middletown Planning Board by Village 35, L.P., a subsidiary of National Realty & Development Corp, to construct a 52-acre commercial shopping complex center spanning a half-mile of Route 35 northbound frontage from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East. Toll Brothers is the contract purchaser to build 350 townhomes on 66 acres of land behind the proposed shopping center, although that isn’t before the Board.

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Typically, an “area in need of redevelopment” study is under taken by municipalities looking to clean up “blighted” properties which must meet at least one of six criterion deemed permissible by the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law.

Minding Middletown’s suit hinges on the validity of that redevelopment process. At a Dec. 6 Planning Board meeting, DMR Architects, Hasbrouck Heights, a firm hired by the township, presented their Preliminary Investigation Report.

Concerned residents didn’t agree with the report, alleging some properties didn’t meet state redevelopment statutes, which include having abandoned buildings, longtime vacant land, damaged property or simply being unsafe and unsanitary, among other factors.

“No substantial evidence exists and none was presented to any municipal board that the Study Area generally, and the individual parcels specifically, were blighted in accordance with lawful standards,” the lawsuit reads.

The group alleges the report was paid for by escrow funds from Village 35. Minding Middletown believes Village 35 wants a redevelopment report because it will allow for an easier path to development. That represents “a further conflict of interest,” per the lawsuit.

Village 35, L.P., was not listed as a defendant in the suit.

Minding Middletown also took issue with how cross-examination of the report to DMR Architects’ professional was prohibited at that same Dec. 6 township Planning Board meeting. Members from the public commented but could not ask the professional questions.

If the study is later turned into a redevelopment plan with an ordinance, any “development thereon will have a substantial negative impact on (Minding Middletown’s) use and enjoyment of its properties and the public streets.”

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Middletown Township, on the other hand, is sticking to its position that the process wasn’t tainted.

“There’s no merit to the suit,” Brian Nelson, Middletown’s township attorney, told The Two River Times. “Even though the process might not be familiar to some, this is exactly how non-condemnation redevelopment works under the law. The township, nonetheless, intends to engage all parties in the redevelopment planning process as it proceeds.”

Minding Middletown is represented by Red Bank-based attorney Ron Gasiorowski, who told The Two River Times this week his clients “have never been averse to the responsible development of that property.”

Gasiorowski added that the residents “simply are concerned about the architecture, they’re concerned about density and obviously they’re concerned about traffic impacts” from any overdeveloped project.

Also listed in the lawsuit as defendants were Mountain Hill, LLC; a Wells Fargo branch located at 857 Highway 35; S.G.M. Corp., which owns a small shopping center at 741 to 757 Highway 35; Zaleski Holdings, the property owner of a “Community Appliance” store at 717 Highway 35; 717 Realty Co., which owns a small shopping center with two tenants at 721 Highway 35; and 32 Kanes Lane, Inc., a single residence located at that address. Each of those properties were listed in the study area completed by DMR Architects.

Homeowners have opposed previous development plans for the vast Mountain Hill property. In 2000, it was the proposed site of a 1.7-million-square-foot commercial center with housing and offices, but strong residential opposition contributed to killing that project as well.

Minding Middletown has been fighting the Village 35 proposal for months and has asked for a figurative “seat at the table” in development discussions.

Nelson, the township attorney said, due to the litigation, “the process might not be as public as the township desired.”

Gasiorowski said Minding Middletown looks for ward to a “non-adversarial meeting” with township officials soon.

This article first appeared in the March 15—22, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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