Car wash issue puts official through wringer


MILLSTONE – A developer whose plan for a Route 537 car wash was denied in August by the township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment came forward last week to allege that Committeeman Elias Abilheira encouraged the project in a 2006 meeting.

Rogan O’Donnell made the allegation at the Dec. 5 Township Committee meeting. O’Donnell and his business partner, Avinash Vashisht, also alleged that the Examiner once quoted Abilheira saying that Mayor Nancy Grbelja tried to get the car wash application approved for her friends. However, Examiner staff could not locate such a statement in any past editions.

The paper did quote Abilheira in the Nov. 15 edition saying that he did not agree with Grbelja and Deputy Mayor Bob Kinsey when “they both supported a proposed car wash plan that the township’s Environmental Commission members deemed to be in clear violation of the master plan.”

At its March 21 meeting, the Township Committee voted 4-1 to introduce an ordinance that would allow car washes as permitted conditional uses in the highway commercial zones along Route 33 and Route 537, with Abilheira casting the dissenting vote.

When asked why he voted against the ordinance, Abilheira said at that time, “It is not a bad car wash ordinance as far as that goes. I’m just not convinced that’s what we are looking for on [Route] 33 or 537.”

The Environmental Commission later wrote a letter to the mayor opposing the ordinance.

At the July 5 Township Committee meeting, a 3-1 vote tabled the ordinance. Abilheira cast the dissenting vote, and Committeeman Steven Sico did not attend the meeting.

When asked at that time why he voted against tabling the ordinance, Abilheira called the ordinance inconsistent with good planning and said that the committee should open it to public comment and then vote on it.

At the recent committee meeting, Abilheira said, “I always said I was against car wash ordinances. What’s the issue?”

O’Donnell said that his father, Robert, who was also involved with the car wash application, is the chief executive officer of Sun National Bank, which was formerly known as the Community Bank of New Jersey. He said that the bank rents space on East Main Street in Freehold and that Abilheira, an attorney, negotiated the terms of the lease. He said that his father was also Abilheira’s tenant at one time.

O’Donnell said that he and his father went to Abilheira’s East Main Street office in 2006 and discussed the car wash project. He said that Abilheira encouraged them to go forward with the plan.

Deputy Mayor Robert Kinsey asked, “You physically sat with Elias and he told you [that the project] was a good idea and [that] you should move forward with it?”

O’Donnell replied in the affirmative, but Abilheira said that O’Donnell’s allegations are not true.

O’Donnell then accused Abilheira of lying and said that based on what Abilheira told him and his father at the 2006 meeting, they started doing busy work on the car wash proposal.

O’Donnell said that the committeeman now states that he has always opposed the car wash ordinance, although he supported it in 2006.

“You didn’t tell us [that the ordinance] was or wasn’t going to happen,” O’Donnell said. “You definitely encouraged it. You said you implemented putting a car wash ordinance together.”

O’Donnell said that the car wash would have been “a solid business to better Millstone.”

“You throw us through the wringer like this,” he said.

Grbelja said that when Abilheira was mayor in 2005, he asked Township Planner Richard Coppola to devise a car wash ordinance. She said she never had a conversation with either O’Donnell or Vashisht about a car wash application.

“I am tired of my reputation being smeared when it comes to car washes,” she said, adding that more misinformation is being spread about her in regard to supporting sewage treatment plants in Millstone.

“For a period of time, I had to spend hours before my own political people to explain that I was not pursuing car washes or sewage treatment plants,” she said.

With respect to Grbelja’s allegation that he had the planner draft the car wash ordinance, Abilheira said that a car wash ordinance is a “simple boilerplate” ordinance that should not take two years to draft.

Grbelja said that at the time Coppola had been ill. According to Grbelja, the ordinance took a lot of time to draft and was not “slapped together.” She called Coppola a master at what he does.

“If it takes him two years, I’ll wait two years,” she said. “He will come out with something impeccable.”

Kinsey apologized to O’Donnell and said that it sounds like O’Donnell was “egregiously misled.” Kinsey also said that the governing body listens to its boards and commissions.