Friday’s special meeting of Manchester’s planning board was filled with shouting & discontent, as residents turned out in force to oppose a massive new development project in environmentally sensitive areas of the township.
The special meeting of the planning board was called to hold a public hearing on the controversial plan to redevelop the former Heritage Minerals site in the township.
If approved, the plan could radically alter the landscape of Manchester, with the developer calling it a “new city in the pines.” The 7,173 acre site was purchased by Hovnanian industries in 1984. Just over 3000 acres of the property fall within the Pinelands Protection Area – with any development being mandated to comply with the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) – while the remaining 4000 acres are within the Pinelands / CAFRA overlap zone, and must meet DEP coastal regulations for any development to occur.
Key points of the redevelopment plan include:
6543 new housing units
1 million square feet of commercial space
1 million square feet of industrial space
A full copy of the plan can be read here.
No Action Taken Friday
After a lengthy closed-door executive session, the board unanimously voted to table further action on the Manchester Town Square redevelopment plan until the June 6th, 2016 regular meeting of the board.
Planing Board attorney Ed Liston said “There will be no public comment, there will be no hearing, and we will decide on June the 6th whether we’re going to go forward or not.”
Mr. Liston got into a heated shouting match with PPA attorney Paul Leodori, with Liston telling Leodori that he should file a lawsuit before the June 6th meeting to try and get an injunction against the board, while attempting to cast doubt on the allegations contained within his letter.
Local residents appeared to be visibly frustrated at the planning board’s unwillingness to hear public concerns. “This is our building just as well as yours,” a resident interjected during Liston’s confrontation with Leodori.
Manchester Taxpayers Could Be Hit Big
The Pinelands Preservation Alliance released a statement claiming that financial figures given by the town have been “…artificially manipulated to make it look like the town’s taxpayers won’t be hit with big increases to provide all the service this huge development would actually require.”
“The reality of what they’re going to do is there is going to be higher and higher taxes that you’re going to pay for, and you’re never going to see the benefit of those taxes.”
The project, which would be developed over the course of 20 years, would see an increased demand on the township’s infrastructure and school system.
Legal Threat Prompts Board To Table Hearing
Earlier in the day Friday, the planning board and township officials received a letter authored by Pinelands Preservation Alliance attorney Paul Leodori.
Leodori told residents that the Environmental Rights Act allows citizens to sue when local governments fail to enforce environmental regulations, the crux of his letter to Manchester and state officials.
Violation Of Federal Court Order Alleged
“The reason that I wrote this letter is that there is a federal court order that was entered several years ago -It seems everybody in Manchester has forgotten about that except you folks,” he told residents that stuck around after the meeting ended.
The consent order restricted the amount of land that Hovnanian would be able to develop on the property, ending a previous legal battle surrounding the property. It also specified three endangered species that were to be protected should the property be developed, among other restrictions that the parties agreed to.
“The developers agreed that they would only develop 995 acres. They are now proposing to disturb almost 1900 acres,” he said. ” Additionally, the order specified that the company would deed restrict 6092 acres of the property. Now he says that number is down to just 4086 acres of the property.
PPA executive director Carleton Montgomery provided us a full copy of the letter, which you can read below:
Camera Shy Planning Board Tramples On First Amendment
Perhaps the most ridiculous portion of the meeting happened before it even formally began.
Theresa Lettman, director for monitoring programs, of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance brought her camera to film the meeting, after she heard from homebound Manchester residents that were unable to attend the public hearing.
In an interview with Ocean County Politics following the meeting, she claimed that planning board members sent a Manchester cop over to try and stop her from filming the public meeting.
“When I got here tonight when the meeting started the police officer came over and instructed me that it was up to the planning board whether or not I could be here with my camera, and they wanted me to shut it off or I would be asked to leave.”
Lettman asked the officer to provide a specific ordinance or policy that restricts filming at Manchester’s public meetings, which he was unable to do. The police officer threatened to physically remove Lettman, but nothing ever came of the threat.
The whole display just begs the question: Why do planning board members – who are taking action on behalf of thousands of Manchester residents – care more about stopping somebody from filming their public meeting than they do about the potential impact of this project on the township?
Next Meeting June 6th
The planning board will meet again on Monday June 6th, 2016 to conduct the public hearing on the Heritage Minerals project. Additionally, those opposing the development are expected to turn out in force at the May 23rd meeting of the township council, which will be held at town hall starting at 6:00 PM this coming Monday.