Zoning dispute heading to state

Upper Freehold couple files complaint to DCA over two Planning Board members.

By: Scott Morgan
   UPPER FREEHOLD — A township couple have filed a formal complaint with the state alleging conflict of interest by two Planning Board members.
   Sue Kozel, a member of the township Environmental Commission and Open Space Committee, and her husband, Chris Berzinski, have filed a complaint with the state Department of Community Affairs, charging Planning Board Chairman Richard Stern and alternate board member J. David Holmes with a conflict of interest related to the township’s review of the Master Plan.
   In November, the Planning Board began hearing public input as to whether the township should change its minimum lot size for development from 2 to 4 acres.
   According to the grievance, Ms. Kozel and Mr. Berzinski allege both Mr. Stern and Mr. Holmes have vested financial interests in the Master Plan revision. Should the minimum acreage change from 2 to 4 acres, large-parcel landowners could stand to lose money on sales of their lands, according to research by the United Landowners of Upper Freehold, an organization of large-parcel landowners in the township.
   Last month, the United Landowners presented the results of a study conducted on their behalf by Martin Appraisal Associates of Lawrence Township. The study suggested, based on recent real estate sales figures from neighboring Millstone Township, that large-parcel landowners would likely experience a decrease in land values if minimum lot sizes were changed to 4 acres.
   Ms. Kozel and Mr. Berzinski allege that as large-parcel landowners, Mr. Stern and Mr. Holmes have "personal financial motivations" in their votes for rezoning. The complaint also alleges that Mr. Holmes, as a member of the United Landowners, has an additional conflict. Mr. Stern is not accused of any affiliations in the complaint.
   Mr. Stern, whose father owns Stern Farm, said he personally owns only 13 acres in the township, though he does manage the farm. Mr. Holmes’ family owns Holmes Brothers Farm.
   The complaint cites two sections of a statute within the Local Finance Board of the DCA. The first part states that no local government official, nor family member, can engage in any transaction that would substantially conflict with "the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest." The second part of the statute states that no such official should engage in any transaction in which financial interest might "reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment." Mr. Stern denies any wrongdoing.
   "I, 100 percent, feel there is no conflict there," Mr. Stern said. He said he believes Ms. Kozel and Mr. Berzinski are wasting time and money on a case that the state likely will drop.
   Mr. Stern also said the complaint has had — and will continue to have — no effect on the Planning Board’s discussion of the Master Plan. He said the board will meet to discuss as a group its Master Plan options for the first time on May 9. He added he has not taken a position on rezoning as he has yet to hear input from the rest of the board. However, he said, the decision will be made by the entire board, not just one or two members.
   "The Master Plan is done by everybody who has an interest in the town," Mr. Stern said. "If you eliminate interest in the town, then what have you got?"
   Planning Board Attorney Frank Armenate had no comment on the filing. Mr. Holmes, in a letter of recusal read by his brother, George, at the March 26 Planning Board meeting, said he felt his membership in the United Landowners was somewhat of a conflict, and so he has recused himself from discussion of the rezoning.
   Ms. Kozel said she and her husband are not prepared to go to court over the matter at this time. She said the DCA will review whether the case has merit and will either reject or investigate the complaint accordingly.
   If the men are found guilty of conflict of interest, they could be removed from the Planning Board and/or fined $500 each, Ms. Kozel said.