Bloomfield gets environmental award for contested land

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Bloomfield has been named the recipient of the 2015 Governor’s Environmental Award for its land conservation effort of the Third River wetland tract on Lion Gate Drive.

The township was cited for its “Third River Urban Park and Floodplain Wetlands Creation Project” which proposes to combine a public park and flood water controls, within an urban setting.

The award was announced Dec. 15 by the Department of Environmental Protection, which, together with the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust and the New Jersey Corporation for Advanced Technology, in partnership with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, sponsors the award. It was the 16th year for the environmental awards.

The 18.5-acre, Bloomfield wetland tract given the award is, however, the subject of a court case now in the Appellate Division, a circumstance of which the DEP was apparently unaware. Questioned as to whether the award would have gone to Bloomfield had this litigation been known, DEP Director of Communications Bob Considine, in an email, said, “We stand behind the award on the merits of land conservation. The nominees are asked to demonstrate a commitment to, and experience in, the preservation of open space that protects land from future development. The nominee did so.” The application was written by Strauss and Associates, of Trenton. It was submitted Sept. 15 by former township administrator Ted Ehrenburg.

In his cover letter, Ehrenburg said, “In recent years, all residential development permits required for construction for 148 homes and 300 parking spaces were issued to developers, thus creating a dangerous situation for the township at-large.”

The current Appellate Court case against the township in the Lion Gate matter is based on a complaint by four plaintiffs, residents of Bloomfield, that 2nd Ward Councilman Nick Joanow should have recused himself from voting on the acquisition of the Lion Gate tract since his residential property is contiguous to it. Joanow did not recuse himself and the second reading of the bonding ordinance passed on Aug. 11, 2014, with the necessary supermajority vote, 5-2.

The four plaintiffs, former Mayor Raymond McCarthy, Russell Mollica, Chris Stanzione and James Wollner, took the township to court and lost. They were without an attorney at that time but have hired Mark Maryansky, of Bloomfield, to represent them in Appellate Court. But Mayor Michael Venezia did not believe an application for the land conservation award should have waited until the litigation was settled.

“So far, we’ve won every time it goes before a judge and I feel confident it will with the appellate judge,” he said in a telephone interview earlier this week.

Venezia said Bloomfield residents should not suffer because a former mayor and former mayoral candidate wanted to block the creation of the park.

“Obviously, the judicial system ruled in our favor and now the Governor’s Office and the DEP approved of what we’re doing.”
He said the township is putting in flood-control measures “to help residents for the next 50 years or better.”

The area of the proposed park is in the floodplain of the Third River. Mollica is a former Republican mayoral candidate.
Venezia said the project was moving forward and, very soon, construction of the proposed park will be seen.
“We’re not waiting because disgruntled residents are suing us,” he said.

He said plans for the proposed park should be completed by February.
“Once we start construction, we’re going to move forward,” Venezia said. “Our legal team feels very strongly about our position.”

In a telephone interview, McCarthy said he had all the confidence in the world, too.
“I’m not disgruntled,” he said. “I’m a concerned citizen. I think what they did is wrong with all this conflict of interest going on.”

McCarthy was referencing the recent reconsideration by the township council of its ethics and pay-for-play policies, a reaction to the Nov. 16 arrest of one of its members, 1st Ward Councilman Elias Chalet.

Chalet has been charged, by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, with second-degree bribery in official and political matters. He is alleged to have solicited and accepted $15,000 in cash from the owner of a parcel of township property the council was planning to purchase. In return, Chalet is alleged to have promised to the property owner his council support for the purchase.

As a consequence of the arrest and allegations, the OAG subpoenaed all council, zoning and planning board documents, pertaining to “all property sales or purchases made by the township of Bloomfield,” according to the subpoena, since Jan. 1, 2011. This would be when Chalet was initially sworn in as councilman. Chalet was also a member of the planning board.
“Do whatever you want, Michael,” McCarthy said. “We’ll have our day in court.”

Mollica, in a telephone interview, said he and the other plaintiffs were exercising their constitutional rights.
“We think there is a conflict of interest by a councilman who lives right next door to the property,” Mollica said. “It’s in the courts unless Mayor Venezia has a crystal ball and he knows the results beforehand.”

But, Mollica admitted, in Bloomfield, nothing would surprise him anymore.