A New Jersey Superior Appellate Court ruled Thursday that the Weehawken Planning Board did nothing wrong in granting a permit to Roseland Properties, Inc. to build the first phase of the $500 million Port Imperial South project, and allowed the project to continue with construction.
The Friends of the Weehawken Waterfront, the local non-profit civic organization that has opposed the waterfront development project, appealed a previous decision made by Superior Court Judge John McLaughlin on June 30, 2000, which had found that the Planning Board made the right decision in granting permission to Roseland Properties.
The case was then brought to the Appellate Court for review and the Appellate Judge panel of three, James Havey, Donald Coburn and Harvey Weissbard, agreed that McLaughlin made the right ruling in his initial decision.
"Upon review, we are satisfied that it is the correct result under the particular circumstances presented," the court's ruling reads. "There is no suggestion of a willful failure to comply for the purpose of concealing ownership. There is not the slightest hint of fraud and deception. Before the matter was heard in the Law Division [by McLaughlin], the required statements were on file. Under these circumstances, we reject the plaintiff's [members of the FWW] claim of error. Given the trial court's lengthy and thorough opinion, we do not find any of the other issues in this case merit discussion."
The FWW initially filed a lawsuit trying to block the first phase of the approved project, which calls for 42 brownstone homes, but McLaughlin ruled that there was nothing illegal with the Planning Board's decision to grant a permit to construct the brownstones.
The appellate decision did not address the 126 charges that the FWW claimed were conducted illegally, but rather focused on just one charge, which was whether Roseland Properties had filed an appropriate and timely disclosure of ownership, listing all the names and addresses of stockholders or individual partners.
The name on the initial application was listed as just Port Imperial South, L.L.C., when the company is comprised of Roseland/Port Imperial South, L.L.C. and the Romulus Development Corp.
The appellate court addressed that charge and said that there was nothing inappropriate about the disclosure. It did not choose to address any of the initial charges in its appellate decision.
Planning Board attorney Thomas Dunn believes that the Appellate Court's decision affirms the original ruling by his board.
"It's an affirmation that we followed all of the necessary procedures," Dunn said. "This ruling clears the way for the first phase to be complete and will have a devastating impact on any suits made for the second phase. I wasn't surprised with the Appellate Court's decision. They usually give deference to the original decision made in Hudson County Superior Court."
When completed, Port Imperial South will include approximately 1,600 residential units, retail and office space and a full-service hotel. There will be more than a linear mile of public waterfront access. The project is divided into two phases, the first of which includes only 42 townhomes.
Carl Goldberg, the developer for Roseland Properties, was pleased with the decision. "I think it's clearly a re-affirmation of the quality of work that the Weehawken Planning Board did in our application," he said. "Not only have we received approval from the Planning Board, but we have approval from the DEP and the DOT. Now, not only do we have approval from a lower court, but we have approval from an appellate court."
Goldberg said that already $3 million of work has been done at the site for the first phase of the project, with sewer lines, environmental remediation, relocation of utilities and marking places for the footing and foundations for the brownstones.
"If there was a delay, this decision certainly removes it," Goldberg said. "We took a lot of time in preparing the application. We were challenged and then to have the court decide in such a clear cut fashion is very gratifying."
Mayor Richard Turner believed all along that the planning process would receive a seal of approval in the courtroom.
"I don't think it's a question of vindication," Turner said. "I know that the Planning Board dotted the I's and crossed the T's in regards to this case. Rarely do you have such an overwhelming decision in a case like this. In my opinion, the overwhelming dismissal of all charges by the Appellate Court shows the leadership of the Friends of the Weehawken Waterfront that they were totally wrong in filing this appeal. The Planning Board was diligent and thorough and protected the interests of the community."
Turner said that the FWW could drop their pending four other lawsuits against the development, so Roseland could build its approved amended plan, which included a linear roadway along the waterfront and an additional acre of open space.
"There still is time to accept the revised plan," Turner said. "They're hurting the public, the township and the development to have more open space along the waterfront."
Ben Goldman, a spokesman for the FWW, called Turner's claim to be a "ridiculous and absurd negotiation."
"That's something he does through the press, not in actual meetings," Goldman said of Turner's claim. "Let me get this straight. If we back off on all claims, lawsuits and demands, then we get a poorly planned brownstone development? That's absurd. And to say that we're responsible for one plan being built over another is also ridiculous. Why doesn't the mayor do the right thing and call for the community plan to be built?"
Goldman called the Appellate Court ruling "disappointing."
"But it's not the end of the road by any means," he said. "Obviously, we're disappointed, but it's not a major setback. We have four lawsuits still pending and the major legal issues with the second phase have not been heard in court. It involves many legal and technical issues."
Goldman said that the group plans to take this latest decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court and to file a petition that will enable the Supreme Court to review the case.
"There's an important matter of law that needs to be addressed," Goldman said. "We're still going to move forward."
"We expected them to go to the Supreme Court," Turner said. "If they want to waste their money, it's their choice. They will lose again."