The Village Keepers, the non-profit that had brought an appeal against the Maplewood Planning Board in an attempt to stop the demolition of the former Post Office building and its purchase by a developer who plans to build a mixed-use building at the site, said in a release to The Village Green on Wednesday morning that it had withdrawn the appeal.
“Sometimes you can fight city hall,” said VK Board Chairman Dirk Olin in the release, but the group concluded that despite “a robust plurality of residents” opposed to the project, the governing body “exploited technicalities and ignored protocols” to approve the project. They “wanted to bulldoze the building, so they steamrolled their own process to get what they wanted.”
Vice Chairman Fred Profeta, acting as the group’s general counsel, blamed “backroom maneuvers” and “last minute site plan revisions” by Mayor Vic DeLuca and the developer that effectively cut the public out of the process, thereby eliminating “the hope of an impartial vote on the hardship issue.”
Profeta said the Planning Board voted 9-0 to preliminarily approve the most recent site plan, “despite a wide range of infrastructure and environmental concerns,” and a revised site plan unveiled to the board only the night
before of the meeting: “The new drawings, prepared in detail beforehand, were suddenly unveiled by DeLuca and the developer after 10:00 P.M. on the night of the Planning Board meeting. But the Planning Board voted on them anyway!”
Profeta continued: “Beyond that, the town’s own law requires it to prove that adaptive reuse of the existing building would present a significant financial hardship compared to new construction. That is clearly not the case, but the chances of proving it to this Planning Board, on which Township Committee members DeLuca and Jerry Ryan currently sit (and will not recuse themselves), are now certainly zero. And the costs of proving lack of hardship in a court of law on a further appeal would simply have been too high for all concerned.”
The group believes the current system needs long-term reform. Olin said, “We have to make sure that the town’s rules for development — and those who interpret those rules to create responsible public policy — are changed as soon as possible.”
Planning Board Chair Tom Carlson took issue with Village Keepers’ characterizations: “I strenuously disagree that the planning board’s review process was in any way improper or manipulated. We followed established legal protocol in exchanging information with the applicant and in hearing the case. The record will bear this out. Furthermore, the board is comprised of a group of dynamic individuals who are intelligent, insightful, and capable of thinking for themselves.”
Carlson continued, “Having said that, it’s important to note that the Village Keepers (and their allied organizations) were exercising their constitutional rights of political expression and of seeking relief through the courts. Democratic processes can sometimes be inefficient and frustrating, but they still reflect democracy in action, for which I have great respect. I believe that the Post House development project benefited from the intense public scrutiny it received.”
Carlson said that he was disappointed that “the Village Keepers did not exit more gracefully. As we all know, politics on a national level these days is hamstrung by sanctimony and ideology. We don’t need that in Maplewood. Rather, we need to find ways to reduce antagonism and recriminations so that we can marshal our energies to deal with the ongoing challenges of keeping our community a great place to live.”
In an email, Committeeman Jerry Ryan responded, “I’m waiting for some official notification to the Planning Board before being sure that this particular appeal is gone. And while I hope that these folks are not going to file more appeals, I won’t believe it until I see it.”
Ryan added, “The nastiness and the vitriol and the scurrilous accusations in their release are not worthy of being dignified by a response.”
Village Keepers has received pushback for its opposition to the project — most especially for its rhetoric — from the group Village Facts, organized by local activist Paul Surovell. VillageFacts.org has countered that much of the information put forward by Village Keepers, Engagement Maplewood and OhNo60 has been flawed or inaccurate.
Village Keepers has also received criticism for the costs that its legal actions have accrued for the Township and the Maplewood Village Alliance. In September, the Township put the cost to the town, the MVA and the developer at more than $27,000, although Village Keepers disputes that the charges can be attributed solely to its legal actions.
The Planning Board heard testimony from Village Keepers and members of the public over the course of several meetings. The last few hearings were moderately to sparsely attended with both proponents and opponents of the project.
Notably, Planning Board member Nancy Adams, who was part of the unanimous vote approving the project, received individual support from members of Village Keepers during the spring Democratic primary for Maplewood Township Committee.
The Planning Board had set November 10 to hear the Village Keepers appeal.
Here is the full text of the release from the Village Keepers:
Village Keepers Withdraws Planning Board Hardship Appeal
MAPLEWOOD, N.J.—OCT. 21 The Village Keepers, a nonprofit advocate for responsible development, today announced the withdrawal of its attempt to persuade the Maplewood Planning Board to stop the plan for demolition and new construction at the old Post Office site. That attempt was based on a 2014 town ordinance which requires proof of significant financial hardship before buildings in Maplewood Village can be demolished.
“Sometimes you can fight city hall,” said Village Keepers Board Chairman Dirk Olin. “But we concluded that — even though a robust plurality of residents has clearly demonstrated their opposition to this project — the governing body has exploited technicalities and ignored protocols in a way that allowed it to force approval of this travesty. Its leaders wanted to bulldoze the building, so they steamrolled their own process to get what they wanted.”
Village Keepers Vice Chairman Fred Profeta, who has also been acting as general counsel for the effort, explained that, beyond frustrating popular will, backroom maneuvers and last minute site plan revisions by Mayor Vic DeLuca and the developer (which thwarted the public’s ability to analyze and comment before a Planning Board vote), had eliminated the hope of an impartial vote on the hardship issue.
“Last week the Planning Board voted 9-0 to approve the site plan for this project, despite a wide range of infrastructure and environmental concerns,” said Profeta. “The new drawings, prepared in detail beforehand, were suddenly unveiled by DeLuca and the developer after 10:00 P.M. on the night of the Planning Board meeting. But the Planning Board voted on them anyway! The unsafe additional load on our antiquated sewer system would have been reason enough to deny peremptory approval of these new plans. Beyond that, the town’s own law requires it to prove that adaptive reuse of the existing building would present a significant financial hardship compared to new construction. That is clearly not the case, but the chances of proving it to this Planning Board, on which Township Committee members DeLuca and Jerry Ryan currently sit (and will not recuse themselves), are now certainly zero. And the costs of proving lack of hardship in a court of law on a further appeal would simply have been too high for all concerned.” The Planning Board had scheduled the hardship hearing for early November.
Speaking for an OhNo60, a group that is allied with Village Keepers, John Harvey said: “This announcement is an unfortunate but realistic response to the manipulations by the Township Committee that we have all observed. Yet this development remains too big, reflects architecture which is inconsistent with the Village style, and is based on a deal that is a financial disaster for taxpayers. Our governing body is giving away prime real estate for a ridiculously low price and is throwing in a whopping tax break on top of everything else. Add to that an increased parking load, stress on our sewers, and detriment to the Village economy – and one has to wonder why our leaders were so resistant to the idea of stepping back and taking a ‘second look.’ It’s a mystery but it’s also a tragedy.”
All of the objecting parties agreed that the recent abuse and controversy required long-term reform. In essence, the governing body never genuinely incorporated public input into its original thinking — nor into what should have been its rethinking after so many different parties raised so many profound and credible objections.
“It’s ironic that the Village downtown was just voted the best in New Jersey,” said Olin. “That designation might survive the building of this ill-conceived structure, but it certainly will not survive any more incursions on our distinctive Village architecture and scale. We have to make sure that the town’s rules for development — and those who interpret those rules to create responsible public policy — are changed as soon as possible.”