Members of the Weehawken Volunteer First Aid Rescue Squad were icing down barrels of bottled water before the hearing in order to keep the anticipated crowd as cool as possible. Large fans were situated on each side of the always-tepid Weehawken High School auditorium to offer some relief. Promotional fliers that had been distributed around town proclaimed the hearing to be "very heated and highly controversial."And it was exactly that.
After two years of discussions and nine months of hearings on the proposed waterfront development, the final scheduled hearing, attended by nearly 200 concerned residents, drew many comments and barbs.
It featured a last-ditch attempt by opponents of the proposed project to further delay the process by trying to subpoena the developer to testify, then featured a host of accusations from all angles.
And the hearing also featured the usually reserved mayor of the township, Richard Turner, raising his voice in anger and pounding his fist on the table in front of him. Turner rarely displays such emotion in public settings.
Needless to say, both opponents and proponents literally saved the best for last.
The first phase of the project, which will cost $60 million, has already received Planning Board approval. The entire $500 million project could ultimately include as many as 1,643 residential housing units, a hotel, a shopping center, and an assisted living center. It may take more than 10 years to complete.
Thursday's hearing started out with the attorney for the Friends of the Weehawken Waterfront, Thomas Segreto of East Orange, pleading with the Planning Board to have the entire hearing process start from scratch. (Segreto is the son of attorney James Segreto, who also represents FWW.) Segreto noted that some of the hearings had been chaired by Mark Gould, who was later disqualified because he was found to own property within 200 feet of the proposed project.
After Gould was removed from the hearings in March, when it was disclosed that he owned property along Boulevard East, the hearings were suspended for two months. The Planning Board decided to offer Roseland the option of excluding testimony that came during hearings when Gould was chairman. In May, Roseland decided that it wanted to continue with the hearings, excluding the testimony.
Thursday night, Segreto asked the board to start the application process all over again, stating that "the developer had abused the procedure ... concealing evidence and testimony."
"They chose to disregard that the testimony collected at those hearings chaired by Mr. Gould was illegal and they cannot simply continue as if nothing happened," Segreto said.
Segreto also asked the board to subpoena developer Carl Goldberg to testify in the hearings.
Roseland Properties attorney Glen Keynes called the maneuver "an 11th hour attempt to delay the process."
"The Planning Board has received adequate testimony," Keynes said. "It does not need more. These are bold, blatant allegations. It's outrageous and [Segreto] knows it. They are baseless allegations. This 11th hour attempt to stop the process is unacceptable."
Keynes said that he was willing to present Goldberg, who sat quietly in the second row, watching the proceedings unfold, as a witness if needed. However, Goldberg was not summoned to the microphone to speak.
Goldberg also declined to comment to the press, as he has in the past, saying he wanted to wait until the Planning Board process is completed.
Segreto tried one last stall tactic. He objected to prior testimony being submitted unless each witness was able to testify the same way as before and each question asked was asked again in the same fashion. However, the Planning Board overruled that final measure.
"Then these entire proceedings are void," Segreto said. "They are tainted."
One final witness was called and that was Gayle Humphrey of the Friends of the Weehawken Waterfront, a group that opposes the project. Humphrey testified on behalf of FWW President Doug Harmon, who was not in attendance.
Humphrey reiterated the many problems that the FWW has with the proposed development. She stated, for the record, that the FWW does not approve the project for several reasons: the size and depth of the entire project, the possibility that waterfront views of Manhattan might be impeded, the fear that there won't be enough waterfront access or open space in the project.
"There's a clear separation between what's public and what's private," Humphrey said. "In a similar development at Jacob's Ferry in West New York, it's advertised that they have more of a police presence to keep people away. Let's not create a situation like that and learn the lessons from the mistakes at Riva Pointe."
A similar free-access to the waterfront debate occurred at the Lincoln Harbor condominium complex a few years ago over the luxury Riva Pointe development out on the pier.
According to Humphrey's testimony, the FWW is also worried about the lack of sufficient parking, and about the traffic woes that the project could cause to the area.
Another complaint is that there is no real model of the project in place.
"No model exists and this is not acceptable," Humphrey said.
That statement drew rousing applause. "We'd really like to see what it will eventually look like," Humphrey said. "We have no idea."
Humphrey's spirited testimony continued.
"The project's buildings will also block our panoramic view of New York and of the Palisades," Humphrey said. "The views will be forever diminished."
Humphrey also maintained that the project will "not conform to the existing structure of the township, giving the area a demographic distinction from the rest of the town, not to mention form a new huge voting block."
"The onus to protect the public is on the Planning Board," Humphrey said. "Let's learn from our mistakes. I urge the board to reject the plan and come back with a new one that is more suitable to the needs of the entire community. If you were to die tomorrow, would you want to be remembered for approving this project?"
That comment drew a mix of boos and applause. It drew the ire of Turner, sitting among those on the Planning Board.
"Do you actually think that you're providing an actual account of what's happened here for nine months, for 20 meetings?" Turner asked Humphrey. "Do you really believe you presented where we are in the process. I think it's incumbent upon the FWW to have a serious discussion on the real issues."
Turner then became enraged.
"The only people who can speak are the ones who have been here every night, sitting through meeting after meeting," Turner bellowed, pounding his fist upon the table. "We were the ones who were here. Where were you? No one has the right to criticize what this board has done. After two years, after nine months of hearings, which is five months longer than is required by law, we are no longer at the stage of discussing. For anyone to believe that we're not better off now is not true and they have simply not listened to a word of what's happened in the last nine months."
Added Turner: "What the Board will do will either accept the application, reject it or modify it. The issues are already on the table. No longer are the issues to be outlined."
The rest of the meeting was set aside for public comments, and there were plenty.
Approximately 30 residents stepped up to the microphone to offer their opinions, either for or against the project. Many of the residents just wanted to speak of civic pride.
"I think the mayor and the Planning Board have shown infinite patience over the last two years and they're to be applauded," said attorney Alex Keoskey, who is also the owner of three Weehawken apartment complexes. "I know who my friends are and these are my friends. You don't know what kind of town Weehawken is unless you've lived here all your life."
Segreto offered an objection, wanting to question each witness as they offered their comments. That objection was again overruled.
Keoskey's business partner, Gary Nicol, stirred up the pot with his comments.
"These people are phony, shallow people," Nicol said of the FWW. "As soon as this process is over, they're going to pack up the three kids into the station wagon and head onto Route 80 West. They don't care about Weehawken. They care about themselves. They are hypocrites. They are carpetbaggers."
Another Weehawken resident, Jim D'Andrea, offered a voice of reason.
"Let's work together and come to a solution," D'Andrea said. "Let's stop making the lawyers rich. Some sort of development is going to happen there one way or another. Let's just sit down and work it out. Let the Planning Board do their job. And they're doing a good job."
Another lifetime resident, Jon Zeeb, also supported Turner and the rest of the Planning Board.
"I've lived here all my life and I've never seen this mayor do anything at all to hurt this town," Zeeb said. "Anything he's ever done has gone to improve it. These people are not the enemy."
Public discussion continued until the meeting wrapped up at 11:30 p.m.
The Planning Board will now review the testimony and come to a conclusion, as Turner mentioned above. They will either accept the application as it stands, reject it, or ask for modifications. The final decision should come within the next two weeks.
"It's in the Planning Board's hands now," Turner said.
The board advised Planning Board attorney Thomas Dunn to draw up conditions and modifications to the developer's initial application, based on the testimony made by the township's consultants.
"We're taking all the thoughts and suggestions we've heard in the two-year process and put them together, then put them into writing," Turner said. "Some of the conditions were ideas from the FWW."
For example, the Planning Board will probably call for rooftop landscaping, an idea devised by FWW member Judith Wadia.
Other provisions they may ask for, according to Turner, include a bicycle path, a two-way street along the water for easier access, and a reduction the size and scale of the entire project, with each building rising to only eight stories, as opposed to the initial plans for 12-story structures.
There was a rumor circulating that the decision would come to a vote at Thursday's hearing, but Turner quickly denied that.
"I don't know who said it would be voted on tonight, but it's not coming to a vote," Turner said. "There's a lot of evidence that has to be reviewed."
Even after the Planning Board makes its decision official, the process is far from completed.
"Every single building has to come back before the Planning Board for a separate final approval," Turner said. "This is done to alleviate any public concern. It could take as much as 10 years to complete. It's an ongoing process that is tightly controlled. However, if one building doesn't work, then you make changes to the second one. That's the way the process works."
One thing is for sure - the long, exhausting process of Planning Board hearings regarding the Roseland Development Project has come to a close. But the debate will live on, even after the groundbreaking ceremonies are held to officially begin perhaps Weehawken's most important development project ever.