Lawsuits, applications stall town center plan

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

MIDDLETOWN — As the town center developer appeals its $150 million plan before the Zoning Board, officials try to stop any action until the courts sort out the three-year-long controversy steeped in litigation and applications.

Four applications and many lawsuits later, the town center developer has appealed to the township’s zoning board to have its third plan referred back to the Planning Board. While those hearings are being conducted, the township is awaiting word on a request it made of Superior Court Judge Lawrence M. Lawson to stop all action on litigation and applications until it is all sorted out and consolidated first.

Four plans have been submitted since the 1.7 million square-foot project, slated for 137.5 acres on Route 35 between Kanes Lane and Kings Highway East, was unveiled in the fall of 2000. The developer, The Mountain Hill Group, is presided over by Joseph Azzolina Jr. and Philip Scaduto, the son and nephew of Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina.

The third plan for the center, submitted in July, was deemed not compliant with township zoning laws in September by Zoning Officer Marianne Hanko. The reason: it straddles two zones, an 85-acre zone which allows for a town center and a 52.5-acre neighboring light industrial zone, which does not.

Hanko said the application needs to stay within the town center zone parameters to comply with regulations. If the developer wants to build in both zones, her findings said, it must submit a separate plan for each zone with all the appropriate buffers between the two.

Or, Hanko’s findings said, the developer’s plan to link the zones with the one plan could be heard before the zoning board in pursuit of a variance. The developer also could choose to appeal before the zoning board to have its plans kicked back to the Planning Board for review. The Planning Board only hears plans that comply with zoning laws.

The developer does not think a variance is needed and has persisted, undaunted, in having the plans heard before the Planning Board.

Mountain Hill lawyer Gary Fox has said there is no need for two sets of plans or buffers between zones because the same owner will develop both properties. He did not return calls for comment.

The developer’s planner, Richard Preiss, echoed that sentiment at the developer’s first appeal hearing before the zoning board Nov. 24. Preiss said that the town center plan straddling the two zones is legitimate because the light industrial zone allows many of the same uses that the town center zone (planned development) allows.

The next hearing on the appeal for the third plan is scheduled Dec. 8.

As that date approaches, officials are looking forward to Judge Lawson’s ruling on their own request to put a stay on any action on the project until it s litigation and applications are all sorted out.

"The township’s position is that you can’t file multiple applications and lawsuits at the same time. It’s confusing," Reilly continued. "Ultimately, this developer is trying to bludgeon the town into an approval. It seems like Mountain Hill, with all these applications and suits, wants to confuse officials and overwhelm them until they give up and cry ‘Uncle.’ "

Reilly went on to say that in his more than 20 years’ experience as a municipal attorney, this is the first time he has ever seen such a tactic employed by a developer who was seeking approval of a plan.

"Usually, applicants apply to the Planning Board and get approved or denied, then they either appeal to zoning board or through the courts on one application at a time," Reilly said. "In this case, there are applications, appeals in the courts and before the Zoning Board and lawsuits on related issues."