Mayor ousts two from open space panel

New Mayor Tom Molnar did not reappoint Open Space Advisory Committee Chairman Hal Shute and member Jamie Kamph, saying the committee has misled officials over an important land deal.

By: Linda Seida
   WEST AMWELL — Tom Molnar, the township’s new mayor, has ousted two longtime members of the Open Space Advisory Committee, including Chairman Hal Shute, saying the committee has misled township officials over an important land deal.
   Mayor Molnar also said the majority of township land already preserved during Mr. Shute’s tenure is located near the chairman’s property.
   The mayor’s announcement of new appointees to committees and commissions, omitting Mr. Shute, was made during the annual reorganization meeting held New Year’s Day.
   Mr. Shute has served on the committee since its inception in 1999 along with Jamie Kamph, who also failed to win reappointment. He said he is "surprised and disappointed" by the mayor’s decision.
   "Surprised because, political considerations aside, in the end someone has to do the work of preserving the land," Mr. Shute said. "Jamie Kamph and I have been serving as unpaid administrators of the program, and given the township’s budget woes, I don’t expect they can afford to hire a competent administrator. It’s a fairly complicated job involving a lot of government entities and professionals. It took us about three years to learn the ropes, and I don’t see anyone on the new committee who is up to speed. I’m disappointed that Mayor Tom Molnar would show such poor judgment in making a political decision that may well hurt the township he is sworn to serve and protect."
   Mayor Molnar defended his decision Monday.
   "My choice to repopulate the Open Space Committee is purely a matter of common sense," he said. "In the past, the majority of the land that was preserved was in the eastern part of the township where Mr. Shute lives. I would like to diversify this program to serve the other portions of the township as well. Hal Shute has almost single-handedly controlled the open space program without sufficient accountability since I have been following township politics. The new members of the Open Space Committee will represent all areas of the township. There are various nonprofit organizations that we may or may not use in this endeavor."
   The "important land deal" concerns the GDP, or General Development Plan, for acreage owned by Robert Fulper and his family along Lambertville-Rocktown Road. At issue are the development rights of 67 units.
   "Hal Shute and Jamie Kamph have given misleading and inaccurate information to the Township Committee in the past few years," Mayor Molnar said. "Last year, it was disclosed that he was having private talks with a landowner regarding a development deal that was not disclosed to the Township Committee. This deal would have required sewers or a community wastewater system. Our goal is to eliminate the sewer service area, not have a reason for it to exist."
   Mr. Shute defended his actions as chairman of the committee, claiming his intentions and his actions were aboveboard and undertaken in the township’s best interests.
   He said, "Molnar’s comments about the preserved land being focused around my property are patently false and displays his lack of knowledge on the subject. First, most of the preserved land around my home was purchased by Green Acres and Hunterdon County with the assistance of D&R Greenway Land Trust with very little help from the Open Space Committee. I have worked equally hard on projects all around the township, and I’ll be happy to supply references.
   "Our open space map showing projects completed to date as well as projects in process shows a remarkable balance around the township and reflects the Open Space Plan we developed in 2000. The map is posted in the municipal building.
   "In order to make real progress in land preservation, you have to follow opportunity wherever it presents itself. If you are too choosy in your projects, nothing gets accomplished. As per our approved plan, we have done that, and I’d be happy to debate the subject with Molnar or anyone else who disagrees."
   Mr. Shute also addressed the allegation he provided false or misleading information to the governing body.
   He said, "I have always strived to keep the Township Committee fully informed. I have attended most Township Committee meetings and supplied hundreds of pages of documentation for their review. As an advisory committee, we have absolutely no authority to spend township funds without Township Committee approval. Again, what is he talking about?
   "The GDP is a fairly complicated land use plan that came up when the township was downzoned. The township’s largest landowner filed the GDP with the Planning Board, where I was not yet a member, in order to maintain their current zoning and land equity. The Planning Board professionals did not agree that the initial GDP qualified as such, and it was likely that the entire 600 acres in question would be developed if the application was rejected.
   "A subcommittee of the Planning Board was formed, and Jamie and I were drafted — we did not volunteer — to try and help resolve the crisis. The resulting GDP that was approved designated about 350 acres for immediate preservation, and the remaining development rights were clustered on less than 100 acres.
   "Over 500 of the 600 acres were to be preserved, and the stated and written intent was to find a way to ‘retire’ the remaining development rights. There is disagreement now as to what was meant by ‘retire,’ but you can get the GDP, the subcommittee reports, the letter of intent between the landowner and the township, the Planning Board resolution of approval and other documents from the township.
   "Everything was reported back to the Planning Board and Township Committee in painstaking fashion. I did have a leading role in the design of the plan, but, again, I was in no position of authority to do anything without approval.
   "Part of the approved and published plan was to pursue a transfer of the development rights in the GDP to another more suitable location in the township. Purchase of the development rights was another option, but it was generally understood that we could not afford to do that at the time. The only talks I had with the landowner were along the lines as to what might possibly work with respect to a transfer of the GDP. These were casual conversations where no promises were made, very typical when you are actually trying to solve a problem instead of scoring political points.
   "Again, I had no authority to make anything happen nor did I try to influence anyone who did. I did not even know of the existence of the sewer service area at the time."
   New Committeeman Ron Shapella, who was sworn into office Sunday, supports the mayor’s decision. He, too, cited misleading information given to officials by the Open Space Advisory Committee. He also commented on committee members’ general attitude.
   The Open Space Committee operated with an autonomous attitude not in keeping with an advisory board’s function, according to Mr. Shapella. Members of the advisory committee seemed to forget "who answers to whom" in its dealings with the Township Committee, he said.
   Mr. Shapella called the actions of the advisory committee "very serious."
   He said, "To me, the Open Space Committee was definitely having discussions they didn’t tell the Township Committee about concerning the 67 units."
   In 2000, only about 250 acres were preserved in the township. Now the number of preserved acres is 3,930, with about another 300 acres under contract to be preserved in the next few months, totaling about 30 percent of the land in West Amwell, according to Mr. Shute.
   Ms. Kamph learned late Monday she had not been reappointed to the committee after returning from a trip out of state.
   "My gut reaction is that Molnar was talking through his teeth and has no idea whatsoever of how the Open Space Committee has functioned," she said. "I’m not sure he understands any of the functions of municipal government, even after two years in office.
   "And it’s my personal opinion that Hal has rescued the township from the committee’s budget ineptitude for the last two years, simply because he cares and despite the flack he receives. We’ve both built great relationships with landowners all over the township, and since neither of us has anything to gain financially or any political ambitions, we were just working our hardest for the good of the community.
   "I wish the impulse were more universal. I’m kind of relieved not to have to work with Molnar’s cronies on a do-nothing Open Space Committee. I’d rather walk away proud of all that Hal and I and the other former committee members were able to accomplish simply because there was no self interest in the equation."
   Reappointed to the Open Space Advisory Committee were Glen Baran, Sean Pfeiffer and Mike Rassweiller. New appointees are Pete Hess, Carmen Perri, Christine Baker, Alex Greenwood and Andrew Nowick.