Town to Fund Up to $10K to Cover Maplewood Village Alliance’s Costs in Post House Suit

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This story has been updated with a list of the Village Keepers Board of Trustees members. The story has also been amended to note that Village Keepers board member Dave Helmkamp was not speaking on behalf of Village Keepers.

Tonight, the Maplewood Township Committee granted a request by the Maplewood Village Alliance to fund up to $10,000 in legal fees that the MVA may incur in a civil suit regarding the proposed Post House development at the former Post Office site in Maplewood Village. The request was granted in a 5-0 vote.

Last week, the newly formed nonprofit entity Village Keepers Inc. served the Township of Maplewood, the MVA, and the developer of the proposed Post House project (JMF Properties) with a civil suit, citing alleged procedural missteps in the process of design review for the project. (Read about the suit here.)

So, what’s next for the suit?

According to legal experts, once served, each party named has 35 days to file an answer. At that point “issue is joined.” Given this type of lawsuit, the legal experts Village Green spoke with said that this will probably be an Action in lieu of Prerogative Writ, in which the judge schedules a conference to discuss the issues and sets a briefing schedule. On the return date, the judge will have reviewed the briefs and will hear oral argument. In some cases discovery is permitted though, legal experts told the Village Green, this seems unlikely in this case.

How much could the suit ultimately cost all parties in involved?

According to Ian Grodman, an attorney and former Vice Mayor of Maplewood, costs will depend on when the judge reaches a decision. “Such litigation could easily cost the town tens of thousands of dollars,” wrote Grodman in an email, “and there is certainly a strong possibility of litigation which could easily involve in excess of $100,000 in legal fees.”

However, attorney and former Mayor Fred Profeta, who is acting as an advisor to Village Keepers, “strongly” disagreed with Grodman’s estimates. “Because the litigation involves such a sharply focused and singular question, with no dispute as to the surrounding facts,” Profeta wrote in an email, “it should properly be disposed of on a motion. If the Township has to pay more than $10,000 for that motion, it is being overcharged by its attorneys. This is not to say that the developer will not be motivated to run up the expenses (it will); but the judge is not likely to allow it. Certainly if that happens, the developer can easily bury a citizens’ group such as Village Keepers.”

At tonight’s Township Committee meeting, Township Counsel Roger Desiderio said that the Town would be engaging its redevelopment counsel to represent it in the suit at a rate of $200/hour. Desiderio said he would be talking with land use attorney Jonathan Drill about representing the MVA at a rate of $175/hour.

Desiderio told the Township Committee he could not yet estimate the total costs of the suit. “If dismissed in motion, it will be less,” said Desiderio, “If not….”

Committeeman Jerry Ryan asked Desiderio, “You’ll keep us appraised of what this is costing taxpayers?”

“I will,” responded Desiderio.

Meanwhile, the MVA will bill the town as needed. The MVA has an annual budget of $51,077, raised each year by assessments on commercial properties in the Maplewood Village Special Improvement District. The MVA provides marketing, events, beautification, and other services to the commercial district.

According to Dirk Olin, President of the Village Keepers, the group has raised approximately $7,800 to date in small donations.

Both Profeta and Olin blamed the Township for the litigation.

“It is unfortunate that the Township Committee forced this matter into litigation,” Profeta wrote in an email, explaining that Village Keepers is only pursuing litigation because the Maplewood Planning Board declined jurisdiction on an appeal earlier this month. Although Mayor Vic DeLuca and Committee Jerry Ryan — who act as Township Committee liaisons to the Planning Board — did not vote on the Planning Board resolution, Profeta contends that they should have recused themselves from an executive session discussion of the appeal. “This was a clear violation of due process,” wrote Profeta. “It is only because of this unlawful action by the Planning Board that Village Keepers is now forced to incur legal expenses in an unnecessary court proceeding.”

Speaking on behalf of the Village Keepers board, Olin wrote, “We are crestfallen that the governing body, the MVA, and Planning Board all surrendered their opportunities to engage this issue with a broad array of stakeholders….. We are prepared to sit down, sadly with legal counsel at this time, and engage in negotiations with no pre-conditions. That would be an outcome devoutly to be wished—for both fiscal responsibility, the civil peace, and a more inclusive and progressive path forward.”

The current board members of the Village Keepers are:  Dave Helmkamp, a licensed professional engineer and residential rental property investor and manager; Steven Weber, former lower Manhattan Borough Commissioner; Al Kuehn, a CHS graduate and member of the Environmental Advisory Committee; Eric Hammarberg, member of an engineering and architectural firm who serves on the Historic Preservation Commission; Olin, journalist and an original board member of the Open Space Trust Fund; and Bryan Magnus, a former member of the EAC who is a marketing executive for a New Jersey-based Fortune 100 company; and Owen Moore, NYU’s Assistant VP of Campus Services. All are Maplewood residents. Olin explained that the board is growing and more trustees may be announced soon.

Village Keepers was formed in March to combat the proposed development. The organization later endorsed Democratic primary challenger Greg Lembrich for Maplewood Township Committee. Lembrich received the most votes in the June 2 primary. 

Lembrich appeared at tonight’s Township Committee meeting during public comments, explaining that he was not aware of plans to file the suit until June 7 — five days after the primary. Asked if he supported the suit, Lembrich explained that it would be inappropriate for him to comment since, depending on when the suit is settled, he may be serving on the Township Committee and would be a defendant in the suit. (If elected on November 3, Lembrich would take office on January 1, 2016.)

At the time of publication, Joe Forgione of JMF Properties had not responded to an email request for comment. Both Mayor Vic DeLuca and MVA Executive Director Julie Doran said that, on the advice of counsel, they could not comment on legal suits.

A number of Maplewood residents took to the microphone tonight to voice support for the Post House project. Dennis Seelbach told Village Green that he had not come to earlier TC meetings to voice his support because “the process worked the way it was intended.” Seelbach said that he worried that Village Keepers was trying to obstruct that process and “we’ll be left with a big box.”

Maplewood Avenue resident and land use attorney Victor Gallo told Village Green that the post office site was a “blight” that needed to be “taken down.”

“For Village Keepers to come out of the woodwork and say this is a rush after three years of debate is a nonstarter.” Gallo said that he and “most Maplewood residents” were “puzzled” by the Village Keepers’ actions.

Village Keepers board member Dave Helmkamp — who said he was not speaking on behalf of Village Keepers — told the Township Committee that many residents had become disillusioned with public engagement. Helmkamp questioned why supporters of the project had not come out sooner but said that even their support was evidence that “we don’t have the right answer yet.”

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