By John Burton
OCEANPORT – An apparent dispute between the Borough Council and the authority overseeing Fort Monmouth property redevelopment could leave borough police without a home in the near future, according to a borough council member.
“Basically, it was like they put a gun to our head and said take a bad deal or we’re going to slam you,” said Borough Councilman Joseph Irace about the situation involving fort property and the police department’s use of it.
According to Irace, discussions between borough officials and representatives of the Fort Monmouth Environmental Revitalization Committee (FMERA) have become frustrated over reaching an accord on a series of lease agreements that would allow for the approval of a private sector-built apartment development complex with an affordable housing component on fort property and would grant Oceanport parcels of fort property for future municipal use.
FMERA is the state authority, overseen by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which is working to redevelop the 1,126 acres of Oceanport, Eatontown and Tinton Falls property that made up the former Fort Monmouth site.
As the officials had been going back and forth on this issue, in the middle are the municipal police, which have been using the fort’s former fire company headquarters. Police had moved into the fort location last fall, having had to operate out of trailers since Super Storm Sandy. Oceanport spent more than $100,000 on the firehouse to make it usable by police and had anticipated using it for upward of two years, Irace said.
Irace is maintaining Bruce Steadman, FMERA executive director, is calling for ending the agreement that would have let the police have to vacate the fort site by September.
“So, we have to come up with a plan B between now and September, of where to go with our police department,” Irace said, “because we don’t have anything available in our borough.”
FMERA’s Steadman is challenging Irace’s characterization of the situation. “Mr. Irace is on his Facebook and Twitter accounts putting things out there that had little basis in fact,” Steadman insisted.
Irace countered by showing a Jan. 20 email allegedly from Steadman to Borough Administrator John Bennett, reading: “I am out of patience. I need that lease signed today. Otherwise by 10 a.m. tomorrow I will deliver the eviction notice to the chief. Thanks to your council we are out of time.”
Borough officials had been prepared to sign off on the lease agreement granting approval to the developer of the housing development in exchange for two, approximately 15-acre fort land parcels and would allow police, borough Public Works and Office of Emergency Management to use existing fort buildings, according to Irace. However, the Councilman charged FMERA allegedly changed the language in the agreement, making borough officials responsible for any environmental remediation and the borough council became leery of what that may cost.
“They did not meet the terms of the contract so we’re not moving forward,” Irace said. “We’re not going to enter into any agreement that’s not beneficial to our taxpayers.”
“I’m not sure where Mr. Irace is coming from,” with these assertions, Steadman responded, noting he has made numerous offers to Irace to meet and “He never wants to do that.”
Oceanport Borough Council is seeking the fort property for a possible future school and maybe for a new borough hall. Borough operations had to move out of the existing borough hall as Sandy damage and general wear and tear over its approximately 50 years of use had left the 222 Monmouth Blvd facility structurally damaged to the point it was uninhabitable. Borough offices had relocated last March to a borough-owned East Main Street location.
The borough council is still considering its options for a new facility, Irace said. As for the police site, “Something has to be done, now sooner rather than later, whether we put them back in trailers or something else,” Irace added.
“I’m going to tell you straight up, we don’t have any type of disagreement with the police department,” Steadman offered. “We have a great working relationship them. We love those guys and we’ve been very supportive and they’ve been very supportive of us.”
Steadman declined to discuss the matter any further, referring inquiries to the state Economic Development Authority’s press office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
SpokespersonRachel Goemaat of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority sent the Two River Times the following statement on Wednesday, after press deadline:
“The sublease that FMERA has with the Oceanport Police Department regarding the Former Fire Station on the Main Post in Oceanport reflects the terms and conditions that the Army’s lease to FMERA contains. Oceanport initially requested changes to the lease to which FMERA could not agree because these changes would have run counter to the Army’s lease. FMERA had an obligation from a legal and liability standpoint to require that Oceanport sign the sublease in its proposed form, incorporating the terms contained in the Army lease. The sublease was ultimately signed by Oceanport in January 2015. Prior to the sublease being signed, FMERA and the Army allowed Oceanport to have access to the building, and allowed construction and upgrades. FMERA provided furniture and gym equipment to be moved into the building. FMERA and the Oceanport Police Department continue to have an outstanding working relationship.”
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