JACKSON — Two years ago, the would-be developer of a huge housing development blamed a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” for the planning council which denied his plan.
Now township officials are at least partially citing that same “hostility” for a heavyweight settlement that will see the project come to fruition – with a six-figure payout attached.
Township council on Tuesday agreed to pay the developer of the proposed Jackson Trails project $700,000 in a settlement that also clears the way for what was originally proposed as a 459-unit development, including 92 affordable and a place of worship. .
Brent Pohlman, an attorney representing the township, did not disclose full details of the settlement, but said four additional affordable units were added during negotiations.
Parts of the development were moved onto the property away from an adjacent environmentally contaminated property, which the planning board said was part of the reason for its refusal in 2019.
“Given the potential risks to the township, this settlement – while certainly not ideal – was a prudent settlement in that it limits cost and potential liability and advances a project that is definitely better than what was originally offered,” Pohlman said.
Donna Jennings, an attorney representing developer Mordechai Eichorn — director of Jackson Trails — did not immediately return a request for comment.
In February 2020, Eichorn filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the planning board had “bowed to serious anti-Semitic pressure from local residents and feared that Orthodox Jews were buying homes and residing in the development.” .
The 97-page complaint specifically used questions and comments made by residents in public hearings and posted on social media as evidence of anti-Semitic hostility.
Many questions focused on whether the children of potential residents would attend public schools.
Facing many of the same faces Tuesday night, the township’s attorneys didn’t mince words: Those comments played a big role in giving Jackson Trails leverage during the negotiations.
“While the members of the (planning committee), elected and appointed, were very diligent in ensuring that they only addressed the appropriate facts and testimony, information was presented to them that was outside the scope of what should be considered,” Pohlman said. noted. “There were comments made in front of this council that had nothing to do with matters over which the planning council has any authority.
“The planning board does not have authority over the schools. The planning board does not have authority over where children in the development go to school. The planning board does not have authority about where developmental children are transported.”
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Instead of filing the case in Superior Court like most land use disputes, such comments allowed Jackson Trails to specifically sue the township in federal court. under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, City Attorney Greg McGuckin said.
RLUIPA prohibits municipalities from imposing overly burdensome land regulations on religious groups.
“It changes the law that applies, it changes the remedies available, it changes the damages that can be sought,” McGuckin said. “And I would just indicate as we go through this town that those kinds of comments don’t help the township. It only hurts the township because…the whole town is painted with this brush.”
The judge in the Jackson Trails case “assumed that these comments reflected the will of the people of the township,” he said.
“And that put the township in very difficult positions, in this case and others, including one that we were able to resolve at high cost and a difficult process.”
Former planning board member Joseph Sullivan said he voted against the project specifically because of environmental concerns. But after hearing that homes had been moved away from the contaminated area, he said he was “happy that this settlement has come to fruition”.
“We can’t deny the fact that people made outrageous and unreasonable comments on the public record that hurt this city,” Sullivan said. “I heard it. Everyone heard it. It was wrong.”
Sullivan resigned from the board in August 2019 after learning that he and other land use board members attended a meeting of a local chapter of Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhood, which opposes actively in many real estate developments.
The group criticized the settlement in a Facebook post on Monday.
The complaint also cited an email from council member Jeffrey Riker to other members of the planning board, alleging construction had already begun on the property before obtaining proper approvals, as a potential conflict of interest. .
He recused himself from voting on the project, at the suggestion of McGuckin, who was representing the planning board at the time.
Many residents at Tuesday’s council meeting suggested that, once built, the Jackson Trails home would be sold exclusively to members of the Orthodox Jewish community.
The city’s Orthodox Jewish community has exploded in recent years, with about 2,500 families currently in the city, more than double the 1,200 cited in the Jackson Trails lawsuit in 2020.
Sheldon Hofstein, former chairman of the zoning board, said the bylaw amounted to “replacing discrimination with discrimination.”
“Shame on you,” Hofstein said repeatedly, listing the township, Mayor Michael Reina, the developer, and “members of the Jewish community in support of this resolution.
“Realize that this resolution goes against Jewish values,” he said. “Shame on you.”
Hofstein also resigned in August 2019 after attending a CUPON meeting.
But Pohlman said those fears were misguided. While the township can’t dictate who a landlord can market or sell their land to, all sales — including Jackson Trails — are subject to the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination.
“This regulation does not isolate them from that,” he said.
The Jackson Trails lawsuit isn’t the only discrimination lawsuit facing the township.
The Justice Department, New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and an advocacy group for Orthodox Jews also filed discrimination lawsuits citing the township’s alleged anti-Semitic actions, including orders banning construction of schools, dormitories and eruv sons, as well as a series of settlements. Orthodox Jewish prayer services in private homes.
These cases are still pending.
Mike Davis has spent the past decade covering local New Jersey news, marijuana legalization, transportation, and a bit of everything in between. He has won a few awards that make his parents very proud. Contact him at [email protected] or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.