WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Zoning Board ruled that the Sai Hira Ram Trust Inc. — the West Orange-based nonprofit group granted approval to construct a Hindu house of worship at 23 Laurel Ave. — will not be penalized for failing to demolish the building located on the property within the 90-day timeframe specified in the board’s Oct. 15 resolution; the decision came after hearing testimony during its April 21 meeting that the trust was affected by circumstances beyond its control.
The Zoning Board members eligible to vote agreed 5-0 to modify the condition — which stated that the resolution “shall be (made) null and void” if the structure were not torn down by the Jan. 13 deadline — to eliminate the language regarding invalidation and change the demolition deadline to that evening’s date of April 21. The board was told that the single-family home that previously existed in poor condition at 23 Laurel Ave. had actually been demolished Feb. 7.
Zoning Board Vice Chairman Bruce Buechler, who was serving as chairman of the board when the resolution was passed, admitted that the nullification reference was a “poor choice of language.” As such, Buechler said he did not believe that Sai Hira Ram should be held to it.
“It was inartfully drafted,” Buechler said of the condition. “The condition ‘null and void’ was meant to put emphasis on the fact that you needed to get this done.”
Board members appeared convinced the trust indeed did make every effort to demolish the structure before the deadline after listening to the explanation provided by Sai Hira Ram attorney Robert Williams. According to Williams, his client promptly sought a demolition permit from the township after the board adopted its resolution, only to learn that the town requires a disconnect from PSE&G before issuing a permit. So Sai Hira Ram filed an application with PSE&G on Nov. 24, the attorney said, but PSE&G did not issue a permit to complete the work until seven weeks later on Jan. 12, one day before the deadline.
Still, Williams said his client immediately filed for a West Orange demolition permit and after “some confusion” with the township’s building department involving construction official Tom Tracey being unavailable for a few days, the permit was received on Jan. 21. From there, the attorney said Sai Hira Ram tried to have the building torn down as soon as possible, even trying to hire construction officials to work overtime on Saturday, Jan. 30. But he said someone called the West Orange Police Department and falsely reported that the board had issued a letter forbidding work on Saturdays — the person has yet to be identified — which eventually resulted in the day being lost. Snow prevented the demolition from taking place for a few days as well, Williams said.
But in the end, Williams said the trust had the structure taken down just as everyone wanted. And, as evidenced by Sai Hira Ram’s documented correspondence with the township and PSE&G, which was submitted to the board for its record, Williams said his client made “exhaustive attempts” to have the work done before Jan. 13. Therefore, he said, the trust should not be punished for circumstances beyond its control.
“We did everything humanly possible to get this permit,” Williams said. “We intended to take (the building) down as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take it down because it would be illegal because the town couldn’t give us the permit because PSE&G couldn’t get out there.”
Williams requested that the condition be modified to excise the invalidation language, pointing out that it creates problems for the Essex County Planning Board and for obtaining funding as the project moves forward. Also, he said he has never seen a zoning resolution be rescinded in such a manner, so he did not even know what that would mean if his client’s was.
The Zoning Board agreed that a modification was in order. Some of the members also expressed their belief that the trust had made a proper attempt at demolishing the building within the specified timeframe, so it should not be made to face consequences for outside factors such as PSE&G — which Buechler pointed out “marches at its own rate” — preventing it from doing so.
“Given the fact that the applicant did what they had to do in a reasonable fashion, they should not be penalized,” Zoning Board member Irv Schwarzbaum said.
Prior to the hearing, several neighbors of the property told the Chronicle that they hoped the board would deny Sai Hira Ram’s request for a modification due to concerns they had with the project. Indeed, the application was rather controversial throughout the Zoning Board’s hearing process, with many residents expressing concerns on such matters as overflow parking, increased traffic and the background of the property owner, the Dubai-based and British Virgin Islands-incorporated Sun King Private Limited. After the board approved the resolution, the neighbors even called for an investigation into how the application was handled, claiming that the board seemed to favor Sai Hira Ram’s interests over the residents’ interests.
At the meeting, however, no resident in attendance spoke out against the modification. In fact Tal Ben-Zvi, one of the neighbors who had raised some concerns during the Zoning Board hearing process, voiced gratitude to the trust for taking action.
“I would like to express my thanks to the applicant for eventually bringing down that eyesore,” Ben-Zvi said. “I’m not pleased that it kept on dragging on, but I hope that now (the project) will move forward.”
Ben-Zvi apparently still had some concerns about the applicant considering that he tried to subpoena their financial records prior to the hearing. Speaking before the board, he said he wanted to see those records because he discovered in Sai Hira Ram’s IRS 990 form for 2015 that the trust’s total assets amounted to less than $50,000, which made him question how it could afford to build a Hindu temple. He also pointed out that Anita Thani signed the zoning application as a trustee when she is not one, and the application also falsely identifies Sun King as a nonprofit, although it identified itself as a for-profit company in its application for certificate of authority filed with the New Jersey Department of the Treasury.
Additionally, Ben-Zvi said his subpoena for Sun King trustee Kumar Mahtani was denied because the trust’s counsel listed him with an address in the United Arab Emirates, but he found IRS documents that showed an Essex County address for him.
Chairman Philip Neuer explained that he denied that subpoena because the board was only provided with a UAE address, where it has no jurisdiction. Neuer also denied Ben-Zvi’s latest subpoena for financial records without prejudice because it seemed to him that Ben-Zvi already had the types of documents he was requesting, so providing them to him would be meaningless. The chairman advised him that if he wanted to try again, he should note specifically what documents he wants to obtain and what time period he wants them to cover.