In recent news, the Mayor of Newark accused the Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey of trying to exert undue influence in order to push through a pet development.
The complaint struck a familiar chord for me, as it sounds like the kind of garden variety corruption that routinely plagues even the smallest of cities and towns.
Giddy with TIF fever, the City of St. Albans has some “goings on” of its own that bear careful scrutiny. I am referring to the current controversy over the fate of the historic Smith House/Owl Club, and the conspiracy to retool an entire neighborhood in order to accommodate a speculative development by one of the state’s most powerful construction companies, Connor Contracting.
I began to tell the story on GMD some months ago, after the local Development Review Board, chaired by the first cousin of the four brothers who own Connor Contracting, issued a permit for demolition of the historically designated landmark and endorsed the developer’s non-conforming speculative office building as the replacement. In so doing, the DRB ignored the fact that the developers had not satisfied even the basic requirements for a demolition permit, and that the City’s Design Advisory Board had unanimously recommended against the changes to street-level parking and destruction of greenspace that the Connor brothers’ proposal entails.
When challenged by members of the community over their failure to enforce City rules and the inappropriateness of the developers’ plans, the City Council refused to vacate the decision and send everything back for a proper review. Instead they forced us, the near neighbors, to appeal the DRB decision in environmental court. Rather than take responsibility for the failure of their own appointed permit body to enforce the law, the Council members actually said that they preferred to let a judge decide!
We are now in the midst of the demolition appeal process, with a merits hearing set to take place sometime in May.
Meanwhile… back at City Hall: Because the Connors’ parking plan required the City to yield its right-of-way so that diagonal parking would make it possible to cram additional cars onto tiny Maiden Lane, it was necessary to obtain permission directly from the City Council for that aspect of the plan.
We, the neighbors who use Maiden Lane, citing safety concerns for the busy little laneway, formally requested the City to do a traffic study before coming to a decision.
Once again, despite the fact that the City’s own appointed Design Advisory Board had unanimously opposed the plan, and ignoring the public request for a traffic study, the City Council members hastily approved the proposal. In support of their approval, City Manager Dominic Cloud offered a two page ‘opinion’ by the captive engineering firm that is in charge of their streetscape.
As perfunctory and tainted by conflict of interest as the opinion was, even that could not wholeheartedly endorse the Connors’ proposal, recommending instead an alternative that was unacceptable to the Connors.
Nevermind the fact that it was Connor Contracting that was responsible for the failed parking design that is already in existence on Maiden Lane in front of the library!
The Council’s reason for rushing? They actually said, once again, that we, the neighbors would undoubtedly appeal; so, in order to allow the court to “roll both appeals together;” and so as not to further delay the developers’ project, they would simply approve it out of hand, and let the judge decide!
Even though there are two attorneys sitting on the City Council, Tim Hawkins and James Pelkey, they all seemed to be totally ignorant of the fact that any appeal of the City’s parking decision wouldn’t even be heard by the Environmental Court; it would be heard instead by Superior Court and follow a completely separate schedule, costing everyone an additional bundle to litigate.
The next time someone complains to me about “frivolous” permit appeals, will he ever get an earful!
The Chairman of the Design Advisory Board ( a subset of the Planning Commission), Chris Dermody, actually spoke up before the Council made its decision, saying that the board had specifically opposed the changes and sent a memo to the DRB about this and the fact that the applicants had not satisfied the minimum requirements for obtaining a demolition permit for an historic property. He asked why that memo was nowhere in the record of the DRB review. He didn’t get an answer.
Last week, when the Design Advisory Board was to hold its next hearing, with the new ACE Hardware store looking for a change to its permit, Mr. Dermody adjourned the meeting without doing any business, making a statement that there was no point in continuing their work if the City disrespects their opinion.
The City’s failures to honor its responsibilities in this matter are becoming so numerous at this point that it really requires much more explanation than I can cram into this diary; so I have laced it with links to Michelle Monroe’s exemplary coverage in the St. Albans Messenger.
Developers enjoying political favors while the public good is left to twist in the wind? It doesn’t only happen in New Jersey.