The Little Egg Harbor Township Committee was put on the spot Wednesday night, and caught flak for ignoring the inquiries of a citizen, who struggled to even get a meeting with township officials, while connected developers got building approvals without issue.
Mathistown Road property owner Lori Aceto, a resident of Forked River, isn’t going away quietly in her quest to get answers from the municipal government after decades of getting nowhere and running in circles with local officials.
After making multiple attempts to reach out to members of the township committee earlier in April – and not even getting a response – she was left no choice but to confront them in public during Wednesday night’s public meeting of the governing body.
A trail of emails provided to Ocean County Politics shows that Aceto’s attorney then made 11 separate attempts to schedule a meeting with the township officials, but none of those attempts actually resulted in a face-to-face meeting materializing.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Mrs. Aceto said that her story not only affects her family, but also the entire community as she explained what transpired. Decades ago, the Aceto family purchased a tract of land zoned residential (R150 and R200) along Mathistown Road in the township, with the intention of developing the property. Without much of an explanation, Little Egg Harbor suddenly rezoned the land to “office & professional” commercial in 1989, which began a decades long battle with township officials, ultimately leading them to suspect political interference.
Mrs. Aceto contends that “overnight” following the rezoning, her taxes on the undeveloped land skyrocketed 347% higher than before the change was made, with the significantly higher tax burden creating a financial hardship for her family. The Acetos petitioned the planning board to allow them to develop residential homes on the land, as they originally planned. In a letter she received, unsympathetic officials retorted that the zoning change was meant to “…allow for low intensity uses so as to preserve the wooded pristine character of this segment of Mathistown Road.”
“Our property was rendered useless with a single swipe of somebody’s pen,” she said. Her family then spent the next 10 years trying to find some way to make use of the property. Mrs. Aceto questioned the rezoning of the land to office & professional, claiming that the township has not had an office or professional building built within the last 20 years.
Little Egg Harbor’s Legacy Of Corruption
Despite being one of the few towns in Ocean County not currently under one-party rule, a dark cloud of suspicion still hangs over the administration in Little Egg Harbor, after the actions of previous public officials. In the early 1990’s the township was shaken to its core with the arrest of its planning board chairman and mayor, both of which took bribes to give out approvals and variances, in addition to having received kickbacks from contractors in a quid-pro-quo scheme.
Theodore Chun, planning board chairman and Little Egg Harbor mayor Robert Tichaz were caught up in the charade and federally incarcerated after being convicted. And both of them were on the planning board when the Aceto property was mysteriously rezoned.
Theodore Chun, Chairman of the Little Egg Harbor Planning Board approached officials of Tuckerton Plaza Associates in January 1991 and told them that their application to construct a fast food restaurant would be: approved if they used the services of a business that had agreed to share its profits with Chun. Tuckerton Plaza Associates used the business and its application was approved. In another instance Chun accepted a $56,500 bribe in mid-1991 to approve a variance for a mining operation. The money was to have been shared with others who were in a position to provide favorable Planning Board votes.
Little Egg Harbor Mayor Robert E. Tichaz , who also on the Planning Board, accepted a $5,000 bribe in return for voting in favor of an application to the Board seeking to construct a $50 million senior citizens’ complex and shopping mall. Tichaz admitted accepting the money from a Township Committeeman between August 1, 1989 and November 8, 1989, to influence his vote as a member of the Planning Board.
Before Mr. Chun – a 12 year veteran of the LEHT planning board – was arrested on the corruption charges, Mrs. Aceto said that just after the saga with her family’s property began, the planning board chairman invited her father to “discuss matters further” at Chun’s home, not at a public planning board meeting or informal review as allowed by state land use laws.
Sensing impropriety, Mrs. Aceto said her father “respectfully declined” that offer, which was probably the best possible course of action given the ethics (or lack thereof) of the official they were dealing with.
Unable to find a way to develop the property given the zoning change, they were left no choice but to begin looking for buyers and rid themselves of the property.
Did Politics Play A Role In Building Approvals?
Two separate developers approached the Aceto family about developing residential homes on their Little Egg Harbor property. From 2000-2001, the two buyers reached a deal with the family to purchase the land for just over $1 million, with the deal being contingent on receiving approvals from the township. Both applications to build homes were denied, and the deals fell through.
Then, in 2002, Thomas Whelan of Mezzina Realty offers to purchase 40 acres of the 50 acre property for $854,000, with the deal not being contingent on receiving any building approvals. After the deal, the property was transferred to Winding Run Associates, an LLC based out of the Mezzina company’s Radio Road office.
Now that the property was under the control of a company tied to prominent LEHT realtor Joseph Mezzina – the same property that was twice denied any approval to build residential homes due to the zoning change – the company was given the green light by the Little Egg Harbor planning board to move forward with construction of homes.
With approvals in hand, the Mezzina company then sold the property, along with an additional 36 acre lot to Kara Homes for the sum of $9.1 million, with Kara successfully moving forward with building homes on the property.
“Reasonable minds can conclude that Winding Run Associates may have had connections and may already have had their eyes set on our land for its own development plans,” Aceto said.
Mr. Mezzina, who some Little Egg Harbor residents accused of “owning the town” when they interjected at Wednedsay’s meeting is well connected. Joseph Mezzina has served on, and chaired the board of the Little Egg Harbor MUA, which was most recently the subject of an embarrassing sexual harassment lawsuit surrounding its previous executive director. While no longer an MUA commissioner as of 2016, Mezzina last made news in 2013, when he was confronted over the MUA’s nepotism problem. Mezzina said that he saw “nothing wrong” with the MUA employing the son of then-executive director David Johnson in addition to having three sets of father-son employees on the payroll.
Mr. Mezzina lucked out again late March, with the Ocean County Freeholders agreeing to purchase a large tract of land near the Winding Run property owned by him for $5.5 million on Mathistown Road as a part of the county’s open space program.
In response to Mrs. Aceto’s accusations, township attorney Robin LaBue, of Ocean County GOP boss George Gilmore’s firm defended the township, attempting to cast doubt on some of Mrs. Aceto’s accusations. But Mayor Gene Kobryn, without offering an explanation for the lack of communication, said that he thought Aceto’s request to speak with township officials on what they can do with the remaining 10 acres of land was “reasonable,” and directed township administrator Garret Loesch to move forward with a meeting.
Will this citizen get a fair shake? We’ll be monitoring the situation in Little Egg Harbor further. Be sure to see the full video of the exchange above.