Council president stops condemnation attempt

Perth Amboy expected
to sell land near park
willingly to Old Bridge

By sue m. morgan
Staff Writer

Council president stops
condemnation attempt
Perth Amboy expected
to sell land near park
willingly to Old Bridge
By sue m. morgan
Staff Writer

Having shaken hands with the mayor of Perth Amboy during negotiations last summer, Old Bridge Township Council Vice President Lawrence Redmond is confident that a piece of land will be transferred from that city to the township this summer.

Likewise, council President Reginald Butler is optimistic, based on Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas’ written willingness to sell a small triangle of land at the entrance of Peter A. Mannino Park to Old Bridge for future development, which may include the construction of a YMCA.

However, Ward 5 Councilman and Republican mayoral candidate Richard J. Greene does not share the sentiments of Democrats Butler and Redmond. In fact, Greene and some of his Republican colleagues are suspicious of Vas’ cooperation, which they claim has been absent as the township attempted to buy the land from Perth Amboy over the course of two years.

Nonetheless, Perth Amboy officials last week stated that they would sell the land, said to be valued at $18,000, to the township for $16,500, according to Township Attorney William Ruggierio, who has been working to negotiate the purchase.

In trusting Vas’ word, Butler has asked for the removal of a resolution proposed by Greene on April 14 to proceed with condemnation of the 1.4-acre piece of land, located along Route 516 at Owens Road. That resolution, as well as a second proposed by Greene to locate the YMCA inside Mannino Park, was scheduled to be discussed at the council’s public meeting Monday night.

Last Thursday, however, Butler asked the township clerk to remove Greene’s resolution to begin condemnation proceedings, as Butler said he received Vas’ letter stating the city seeks to complete the property sale.

Vas’ letter, dated April 17, advised Butler that Perth Amboy recently discovered that it must apply to the New Jersey Watershed Property Review Board before it could proceed with any sale of the land, which is part of the vast Runyon Watershed. That entire watershed, located off Route 516 in Old Bridge, is owned by Perth Amboy.

Besides the sale of the triangle to Old Bridge, Perth Amboy is also currently negotiating the $11 million sale of 1,100 acres of the Runyon Watershed to Middlesex County. Like Vas, all seven members of the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders are Democrats.

During proceedings with the county, Perth Amboy learned that the sale of any watershed land must first be reviewed and approved by the state watershed board, Vas said in the letter. Once that board approves the city’s intended land sale to Old Bridge, Perth Amboy would be ready to execute the purchase contract, Vas wrote.

"I am pleased that the city will be able to accommodate Old Bridge with its planned road and park improvements," Vas concluded in his letter to Butler.

On Thursday, Butler copied Vas’ letter to the entire council and, in a cover memo dated April 17, the council president mentioned that the resolution to condemn the Perth Amboy tract would be removed.

"After reading this letter, I have decided to remove this item from the agenda at this time so that we do not strain our relationship with Perth Amboy," Butler wrote.

At an agenda session held Monday night, Redmond, who has served as the council’s liaison in negotiations with Vas and with county officials, announced that the state’s watershed board and Perth Amboy officials would review the city’s two land sale applications in June.

"They’re having a hearing in June," Redmond said. "At the June date [Perth Amboy will] get the final approval of sale."

Redmond told the council that although Perth Amboy was initially reluctant to sell the tract during a meeting last summer, they finally agreed to sell it due to the county’s intervention.

"I got a handshake from Joe Vas," he said.

When Redmond called Vas last week to find out the status of the impending sale, he learned of the upcoming meeting between the city and the state watershed board.

"I was able to [find out the status] with one or two phone calls," Redmond said.

Nonetheless, Greene, Mayor Barbara Cannon and Ward 6 Councilwoman Lucille Panos expressed skepticism that Vas would actually cooperate with Old Bridge come June.

"I’m overwhelmed and glad that all of a sudden things are starting to pick up with Perth Amboy," Greene said.

Cannon questioned Vas’ motives in suddenly agreeing to negotiate with the township. The pending sale of development rights to the county might have been what motivated Vas to cooperate with Old Bridge, she suggested.

"This is the first time, after two years, that we’ve heard about the watershed review board," Cannon said. "I find it hard to believe."

Unconvinced by Vas’ statements, Greene accused Butler of "arbitrarily" removing the resolution to proceed with condemnation.

However, Butler did not yield to Greene’s request that the item be returned to the agenda. The council president subsequently motioned to table discussion on the matter, as well as further discussion on the placement of the YMCA until Monday night.

Butler’s motion passed by a 7-2 vote, with Greene and Panos objecting. Cannon bristled at Butler’s actions.

"I object to tabling something to stifle discussion," Cannon said.

Democratic Councilman Dennis Maher, who chairs a nonpartisan committee assigned to bring the YMCA to Old Bridge, expressed a desire to "fast-forward" selection of a final site for the YMCA during the public meeting scheduled for Monday night.

Citing Vas’ letter, Maher took Cannon’s administration to task for not being aware that the Perth Amboy mayor had to receive approval from the state watershed board before moving ahead with selling its land.

"We also have a letter from the mayor of Perth Amboy who is telling us that he is anxious to sell the property but he has some restrictions," Maher said. "Shame on [Cannon] and her administration if they did not know that."

When the township decided to condemn the 200-acre Cedar Ridge II property more than three years ago, it had expected to pay $5.2 million, the assessed value, for that tract, Maher reminded his colleagues.

More recent appraisals released in October have pegged the tract’s value at nearly $18 million, he said.

"Let’s not fly off the handle with respect to condemnation," Maher said.

Speaking during the public portion, Middlesex County Treasurer and Democratic mayoral candidate James Phillips urged the council to work amicably with Vas given that city’s apparent willingness to sell the land to the township for a price lower than its appraised value.

"I happened to be there when Larry Redmond shook the hand of Joe Vas and [Vas] agreed to sell the land for the amount asked for," Phillips said.

"Why should you want to condemn something when the price has been set?" Phillips asked.

At the April 14 public meeting, Greene openly accused Vas and the Democratic council majority of deliberately stalling the land sale in order to delay selection on a site for the YMCA.

Greene and other Republicans have argued that the proposed 51,000-square-foot YMCA should be constructed inside the 165-acre Mannino Park rather than at a 3-acre site near the municipal complex. Both sites were recommended by CME Associates, a Sayreville engineering firm contracted to evaluate future locations for the structure.

However, some Democratic council members, including Ward 2 Councilman William Baker and Maher, have contended that they are leaning toward the Mannino Park site as well.

Maher has further stated that it is necessary to complete a $13,500 engineering study to develop a master plan for Mannino Park. That engineering study should be completed within 60 days, he added.

That master plan is necessary to ensure that the YMCA structure, an assortment of athletic fields, parking and other amenities will all fit inside the park, Maher has said.