In a five-to-two vote, the motion to fine them for the use of town experts failed, but there was continued debate. The two members voting for the fines are John Bueckner and Robert Kickey, who oppose the current administration.
The town had halted construction in August 2002 on a home at 128 Central Lane, charging that the design violated height restrictions and other zoning laws. During a year of intense negotiations, the owners of the home agreed to lower the roof and remove the second kitchen. The second kitchen had made the house into a two-family in a zone limited to one-family homes.
But the owners proved unable to change the height of the house due to its design.
Vincent Prieto of the town's Department of Inspections said he had stopped the project because the work did not conform to the plans submitted to the town. Prieto met with the contractor and the building's architect to resolve continuing problems. Eventually, the case was sent back to the Board of Adjustment to hash out the details.
On Dec. 9, after a marathon session, the Board of Adjustment voted 6-1 to give a height variance to the project, but also agreed to remove the second kitchen. The height variance had been granted over the objections of numerous neighbors.
Board members said the height was a apparently the mistake of the contractor and that the foundation had not been dug deep enough to accommodate the design.
At the Dec. 10 council meeting, Councilman Bob Kickey made a motion to impose the maximum fines on the property owners and to bill the property owners for all the extra expenses the town had incurred in resolving the case.
Kickey said that not only did the Board of Adjustment have to hire an additional architectural firm to look over the plans, but that the town attorney had expended extra time on the matter, as did other professionals.
"Taxpayers should not have to bear those extra expenses," Kickey argued.
Mayor Dennis Elwell, however, disagreed, saying that the fines - which could be as high as $18,000 - should be left up to Prieto.
Under the stop work order, the town can impose a fine of $500 a day maximum until the matter is resolved and force the property owner to pay extraordinary expenses.
Not the whole fine
Elwell said Prieto's recommendation was that the property owner pay $8,000 total to cover the hiring of engineering firm and other incidental expenses. He said he saw no reason to impose the maximum fine on the owners.
"They wanted to get into the house by Thanksgiving," Elwell said. "We made them seek a variance first. I think they have suffered enough expense and delay after so much time that a fine would be unfair."
Town Administrator Anthony Iacono argued that while asking the property owner to pay for the engineering firm was proper, he said they shouldn't have to pay for the town attorney or other experts.
"We use these people regularly when it comes to questions like these," Iacono said. "And in no other case have we ever charged them extra. I don't think we should do so now."
Kickey and Councilman John Bueckner, however, argued that the experts were brought in based on a complaint, and that the experts proved that the project as proposed was in violation of town ordinances.
"If we check and we find they were wrong, I don't see any reason why we should not bill them for the extra hours our professionals put in," Bueckner said.
Councilman Fred Constantino, in siding with Iacono and the mayor, said there is a certain "cost of doing business" that is part of government.
"This is what our professionals get paid to do," he said.
Elwell said many of the professionals were hired to protect the interests of the taxpayers.
"That's what we pay them for, and that's what we did," he said. "We don't need to bill people when our professionals are doing what they are paid to do."
In a pre-meeting caucus, the Town Council met with Richard Dwyer of PSE&G concerning digging up of various streets. Dwyer noted that PSE&G has one of the best patching programs in the country, and that if a problem occurs, the company would come bring the street back to standard.
The council had been concerned over utility companies digging up streets that the town had just repaved. Dwyer said PSE&G routinely sought repaving plans from towns at the beginning of each year in order to do work in streets before they are repaved.
"We routinely check the Department of Transportation's website for information," Dwyer said. "But 90 percent of street work is customer-driven, people requesting service from us, and that can't be predicted."
But he said in those instances, PSE&G repair crews seek to leave the street in the same condition or better than it was found.
"PSE&G is one of the national leaders on this issue," he said, telling the council if there is a problem, to have someone call. "In the past, whenever there has been a concern, Mike Gonnelli [DPW superintendent] or Gerry Pericone [the town engineer] has called us and we came right out."