On Monday the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling that could be a death knell for the proposed Assisted Living Facility (ALF) slated for construction in downtown Montclair.
The Court ruled that public officials in New Jersey who also serve in leadership positions in churches or organizations are barred from voting on zoning applications for sites within 200 feet of their church or organization, according to NJ.com.
The decision is a victory for Montclair property developer Dick Grabowsky’s efforts to block construction of the ALF by Fountain Square Development. Grabowsky claimed former mayor Jerry Fried and councilman Nick Lewis should not have voted on an ordinance (which passed by a 4-3 vote) amending the township’s redevelopment plan to allow construction of the ALF because both Fried and Lewis were leaders in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Church located next to the parking lot to be redeveloped.
In her 7-0 ruling, Justice Anne Paterson of the State Supreme Court said “…for purposes of determining whether a public official is disqualified from participating in a zoning application because of his or her affiliation with a church or other organization, that organization is deemed to have an interest in the application if it owns property within 200 feet of the property that is the subject of the application. In this case, by virtue of the Unitarian Church’s status as the owner of property adjacent to the Church Street Lot, it clearly held an interest in the Fountain Square application to amend the Ordinance. “
The decision cited that “Fried and Lewis had been selected to occupy positions of leadership in the Unitarian Church” and “is understood to share its interest in the outcome of a zoning dispute. If the organization has an interest in a zoning application, such an official has a disqualifying indirect personal interest and should refrain from deliberating and voting on the zoning application.”
“This is an extraordinarily significant win for residents of Montclair who want to see their downtown protected from irrational development,” said Grabowsky.
Grabowsky’s complaint was dismissed by a trial court in 2012, that decision was upheld by an appellate court in 2013, but the developer appealed to the NJ Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to a trial court for final resolution.