The Seaside Land Swap Deal is Crawling With Conflicts of Interest
A former client of Ocean County GOP boss and pay-to-play lawyer George Gilmore has been given publicly owned oceanfront property in a Seaside Heights land swap deal recently approved by the state, while Gilmore still represented the town, and did not recuse himself, despite representing the same developer as they acquired neighboring properties years ago.
We think something stinks about this deal.
The optics of the Seaside Heights land swap deal that was recently approved are not good.
The deal was approved on June 30th by the State House Commision, a state body responsible for overseeing the sale of public lands in New Jersey. Under the exchange, the Borough of Seaside Heights will give up 1.37 acres of oceanfront property in exchange for land that is currently a parking lot between Carteret and Sampson avenues. Seaside Heights will also take ownership of the historic Dentzel-Loof Carousel, to be kept in a museum to be built on the newly acquired land. Included in the deal is a tract of land near Community Medical Center in Toms River, currently owned by Ocean County, that will be dedicated for preservation by Seaside Heights.
Conflict Of Interest? Before Seaside Heights Gave Away Land, Gilmore Firm Represented Storino
Without question, the biggest red flag in this deal is the involvement of Chairman Gilmore. Currently, Seaside Heights is one of the towns represented by the Gilmore firm, which represented the borough before the state DEP and others during the course of the deal’s planning.
But public records show that Gilmore’s law firm has represented the Storino brothers – who are set to acquire the beachfront property under the land swap – in previous real estate transactions where they acquired other lots neighboring the lands next to what is transferred to them by the Seaside deal.
Consultants hired by Seaside Heights have argued that the deal will both aid in restoring the Storino family’s Casino Pier to its pre-Sandy footprint and contribute to the restoration of the tourism economy, which is the backbone of Seaside Heights’ economy.
As with most of the machine’s attempts at forcing through deals that tend to favor developers and special interests over the general public, the paper trail tells a story all of its own.
The Gilmore-Storino Connection
According to land records obtained from the Ocean County Clerk’s Office, Gilmore & Monahan represented Vincent and Pasquale Storino as early as February, 2002 when the brothers purchased tracts of land from Bob Bennett. The land they purchased hosts most of their commercial property in Seaside.
It should be noted that in the 2002 deal, the Storinos acquired most of their existing beachfront property that adjoins the land that was just acquired in the recently approved deal.
In the 2002 deal, the Storinos acquired Block 99.02 lots 1.02 through 1.04, which adjoins the land just acquired under this deal. The 2016 deal gives them Block 99.02 lot 1.
If Gilmore’s firm was helping this same developer acquire other tracts of land in Seaside Heights, how can they be trusted to negotiate the best possible deal with their former client on behalf the people of Seaside Heights?
Not Storino’s First Deal With Seaside Heights
Despite Storino being a former client, this is far from the first deal where the Gilmore firm has been listed as representing Seaside Heights in transactions with the Storinos. 7 years after the 2002 deal, in 2009 Vincent Storino sold his property located at 60 Blaine Avenue to the Borough of Seaside Heights for the sum of $300,000. The last sale on the property before the 2009 deal was in 2002, when the Parrinello family, the previous owner sold it to Richelle Smith for the sum of $190,000. Records showed that Smith later transferred the property to the Storino company AFMV, LLC. for $1.00.
Another land deal took place between the Storinos and Seaside Heights in 2009. A partnership constructed by the family, Storino, Storino & Storino, L.P. sold their 54 Blaine Avenue property to the Borough of Seaside Heights for $350,000. Again, listed on the deed and real estate documents on behalf of the borough was George Gilmore. The Storinos purchased this property in 2007 from Richard Samuel, a resident of Edison, NJ, for the exact same sale price, $350,000.
Whether or not Gilmore has run afoul of ethical rules, this arrangement at the very least creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, and raises questions as to the motives of those involved in this deal. Gilmore’s rare display of public enthusiasm should tell the public all they need to know about this arrangement, given the powerful county GOP chairman’s background.
George Gilmore And The Ocean County Axis Of Greed
Gilmore is best known as the wily lawyer and political boss who – through his iron-fisted grip on the dominant county GOP – has institutionalized the regime of pay-for-play and patronage that currently dominates Republican politics in Ocean County. By bankrolling candidates in local, county and state races, his party’s axis of greed continues to ensure the steady flow of pay-to-play contracts along with worthless, invented crony hires, such as the Jack Kelly “airport analyst” gig, or even more recently the State Parole Board shenanigans. And don’t forget the fallout from when Gilmore’s Berkeley GOP surrogates tried to make April Yezzi the Central Regional School Board business administrator! As demonstrated quite clearly by Gilmore’s work, politicians reward big donors with favors and unqualified positions for so-called “friends and family.”
In all fairness, Gilmore is hardly the only machine boss within the state of New Jersey, and this issue is not just a Republican problem (Democrats can be just as bad, just look at George Norcross), but here in Ocean County it’s Gilmore’s GOP that gets the final say. The tactics are reminiscent of Frank Hague’s Hudson County Democratic Machine from the early 20th century. The two-party system has allowed the donor classes of both major parties to frame the debate from the beginning to exclude any meaningful reforms to curtail pay-to-play practices by government contractors, who often cash in on their political connections.
Even a former GOP elected official recently admitted that “The professionals get rich off the backs of the politicians.”
Toms River Property Bought By County Had Connection To GOP Donor, County Law Firm
The Toms River property that has been added to the land swap deal consists of 67.17 acres of land known as the Parkway Mall tract that essentially can never be built on due to land use and zoning restrictions affecting the property.
It is zoned R-400C, or “Conservation Residential Zone,” meaning only low-density single family dwellings could be built on the property. The appraisal report noted that “…the land is effectively entirely constrained with non-buildable, wooded freshwater wetlands, buffers, and an overhead JCP&L Right-of-Way easement, yielding little if any economic use potential for the site.”
The Gilmore firm’s submission for the project said that preservation of the Toms River land is “…important in light of the continual pressure for development in the Ocean County region.”
What pressure? The previous owners were never able to develop the site as a part of the Route 37 Business and Hospital Medical Complex as originally planned. The wetlands, easements and other land use hurdles on the site do not make it practical for any development whatsoever.
The Parkway Mall partnership sold it to Ocean County in 2011 for the sum of $550,000. A current appraisal of the property used for the land swap valued the property at just $280,000 as of 2016. The property will be transferred to Seaside Heights as a result of the deal. One notable member of the partnership that owned the property named on the deed transferring it to the county as a part of the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust program was Toms River Crossroads Realty founder Byron Kotzas, who is now deceased, having passed away in 2012. Mr. Kotzas has a son, Steven, who is a partner in the law firm that represents Ocean County, Berry, Sahradnik, Kotzas & Benson.
Byron Kotzas was a big campaign contributor, having made deposits to several Axis of Greed slush funds in past elections, including thousands of dollars of donations to the Ocean County Republican Finance Committee. He also funded candidates in Toms River including Tom Kelaher’s mayoral bid, Council Members Maria Maruca (who got a patronage job at the TR DMV), Mo Hill & Greg McGuckin (now an assemblyman), along with regular donations to LD30’s State Senator Bob Singer.
“Giveaway” Of Public Land Says Tittel
“This is a complete giveaway of public land to private developers so they can extend their boardwalk and the Statehouse Commission has gone along with it. The land being replaced is a joke. It is not even on a beach, near the ocean, or encompasses the same aesthetic or recreational value. You can’t replace beachfront property—it doesn’t exist,” correctly noted the New Jersey Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel.
“What is more shameful is they are using a Carousel museum as an excuse to take away our public land and build a new pier when they can build the museum elsewhere.”
Even a quick glance at the details show that this is anything but an equal exchange. The carousel, while historic, should not be used as an excuse to give away public lands to enrich private developers at the expense of the public.
The Toms River property being obtained by the Borough of Seaside Heights in the deal is worth just $280,000, while an appraisal of the historic carousel included as a part of the deal puts its value between $2.3 and $2.5 million.
The land being given to the private developer had two appraisals done on it. One by Stafford Township’s Henry Mancini, and another by Integra Realty Resources. The Mancini appraisal valued the property at $4,200,000, while the Integra appraisal valued it at $4,780,000.
Two appraisals were also done by the same companies on the additional piece of land currently used as a parking lot that the Storinos will transfer to Seaside Heights as a part of the deal. Integra valued this property at $2,290,000 while Mancini valued it at
Nearly $40 million worth of amusement attractions are planned for the site by Casino Pier.
Outcome Of Deal Must Be Closely Watched
While we can’t say for sure whether or not any laws or ethical rules were indeed broken in this transaction, when Mr. Gilmore is on the winning end of any deal (and he almost always is), it’s usually a losing deal for the taxpayers, so outside observers should guide themselves accordingly.
Gilmore’s political and financial success is attributable to the numerous loopholes in New Jersey’s pay-to-play laws, as he has mastered the dark art of exploiting public service for personal gain, and his public endorsement of the deal does little to reassure our concerns surrounding the exchange. The fact that he was entrusted to negotiate with a former client that he previously aided in acquiring land – which resulted in a deal that appears favorable to said former client – casts a shadow of suspicion over the whole enterprise.