Illegal Dump Development Makes Mountain out of Mulch Hill

July 30th, 2017
Illegal Dump Development Makes Mountain out of Mulch Hill

[Editor's Note: At 11:07 p.m. on July 30, at 12:38 p.m. on July 31, at 6:15 p.m. on August 1 and at 6:55 p.m. on August 13, 2017, this story was edited for style, content and accuracy.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series.]

More than a decade ago, Lakewood businessman Ovadi Malchi was a man with a vision.

In fall of 2004, Malchi saw a 1-story commercial building on Route 9 north and envisioned a supermarket that would service the shopping needs of a growing residential population at the southern end of town.

He also looked at a former illegal dump adjacent to the property and did not see what it was, but what it could be - expanded on-site parking, a precious resource in a growing township.

All Malchi needed to do was convince township officials to share his vision for a better Lakewood.

He failed.

His loss that year is every taxpayer's loss this year.

In an August 8, 2005 letter to the township, Malchi attorney Abraham Penzer requested that the township sell two public lots owned in the area for construction of additional parking for his client's proposed business, a neighborhood supermarket.

"Please be advised that this office represents Ovadi Malchi who is the principal of 1161 Route 9, LLC," Penzer wrote 2005 Lakewood Mayor Charles Cunliffe, 2005 Township Manager Frank Edwards and 2005 Lakewood Planning Board Chairman Stanley Banas. "Mr. Malchi has come up with a plan to do an addition of stores which will create a nice rateable and will cause a good use to be made of the property. However, in appearing before the Planning Board Tech Meeting it was realized that there is not enough parking to make this project happen."

Penzer asked township officials to consider selling Hagaman's Property to Malchi.

"The adjacent parcel to the north is lot 1, block 1064 and lot 3 to the south along River Avenue is part of the Hagaman Dump Site," Penzer wrote. "It was indicated by the Board that this property would lend itself perfectly for a parking lot due to the environmental considerations."

The township declined to sell the parcels to Malchi.

Last year, the township committee instead leased Block 1064 Lot 3, on which former owner Glenn Hagaman reportedly buried contaminated waste, to medical service provider Chemed, which employs Lakewood Committeeman Menashe Miller.

Last year, Miller was the appointed mayor of Lakewood Township.

Chemed is a tenant of Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG), the owner of the former Jamesway retail store on Route 9 north, located at the Lakewood border with Howell Township.

BMG is an institution of higher learning described by multiple sources as one of the largest rabbinical colleges in the world.

In 2002, the year Miller ran unsuccessfully for election to the Lakewood Township Committee in the general election, he told a reporter he was employed part-time as an instructor at BMG.

Aaron Kotler, the director of BMG, is not just a prominent educator, he is also a political activist. As a member of the Vaad, Kotler is an influential government lobbyist that makes endorsements for public office.

Since the mid-1990s, no candidate running for election to the Lakewood Township Committee has won without the Vaad's endorsement.

In the 2002 general election Miller lost, the Vaad endorsed Democrats Raymond Coles, who was seeking his first full 3-year term on the township committee, and Coles' running mate, Charles Cunliffe, who was running for re-election to a third 3-year term on the township committee.

Cunliffe was sworn into office for the first time in 1996 and served four consecutive terms on the local governing body. He declined to run for a fifth consecutive term in 2008.

In 2009, Cunliffe and former Lakewood Development Corporation (LDC) member Lynn Celli ran for township committee as Independents.

The LDC oversees the township's Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) program.

They did not receive the Vaad's endorsement.

They lost.

Celli no longer lives in Lakewood.

In December 2001, Coles was appointed to fill the unexpired 3-year term of Democratic Deputy Mayor P.G. (Phil) Waxman, who resigned his seat on the Lakewood Township Committee to accept an appointment to the Ocean County Tax Board, on which he still serves.

Although the Vaad endorsed Miller as a write-in candidate in the Republican Primary, members declined to endorse him in the general election of 2002. He went down to defeat that year.

The following year, the Vaad endorsed Miller in both the Republican Primary and the general election of 2003. As a result, Miller won his first 3-year term on the local governing body and was affirmed into office in January 2004.

Miller is up for re-election in 2018. He has served five consecutive terms in office.

Miller's employers invested wisely in his political future at his constituents' expense.

At the November 10, 2016 meeting of the Lakewood Township Committee, Mayor Miller abstained, rather than recused from a vote to approve Resolution 11, which called for the lease of Hagaman's Property to Chemed. Chemed reportedly received a $1,000,000 Federal grant to build a healthcare facility at the southern end of town.

A decade ago, Beth Medrash Govoha redeveloped the former Jamesway shopping center at the northern end of town as office space it leased to Chemed for use as a healthcare facility.

There is a significant difference between the the legal action Miller took to abstain and the legal action he should have taken to recuse during the township committee's November 10, 2016 vote on the Chemed lease resolution.

In order for any Lakewood committee member to abstain on a vote to approve a consent agenda, all that person has to do is announce while casting his vote that he is abstaining on a particular item scheduled for action.

In comparison, for a Lakewood committee member to recuse from a vote on a particular consent agenda item by leaving the dais, committeemen must motion and second that the item be removed from the agenda for separate discussion and vote.

Committeemen did not want a public discussion of resolution 11 at their November 10, 2016 meeting.

Neither did Chemed.

Last month, without public notice or approval, Chemed saved thousands of dollars in development application costs by removing the trees from the wooded parcel known as Hagaman's Property, despite a large sign posted in front it, informing the public that an environmental investigation and environmental cleanup was in progress on the site.

It pays to have friends in high places.

It's much more difficult to get public action when you don't.

On Monday morning, July 24, 2017, Lakewood resident Avraham Sharaby frantically tried to find out why trees were being cut down on the site, which the large sign posted on the fence in front of it identified as Block 1064 Lots 1 and 3; Block 1068 Lot 1; and Block 1069 Lot 2.

Sharaby, a real estate broker and graduate of BMG, ran unsuccessfully in the 2017 Lakewood Republican Primary on a platform of smart development and improved quality of life.

According to e-mails posted online by a journalist using the pseudonym First Amendment Activist, Sharaby contacted the Lakewood Police Department to request service after observing the removal of trees on the site without a township permit.

Sharaby reportedly confirmed through e-mails and calls to Lakewood Planning Board Secretary Ally Morris, acting Lakewood Zoning Officer Francine Siegel and Lakewood Inspection Department Director Michael Saccomanno that no approvals or permits had been issued for the removal of the trees.

Chapter XIX of Lakewood Township's code book, referred to as the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), Protection of Trees, is popularly referred to as the Tree Save Ordinance. Under the ordinance, there is a separate fine of up to $2,000 for each tree illegally removed without a township permit, multiplied by the number of days the violation continues to be committed.

As a prescribed remedy to stop a continuing violation of illegal tree removal from recurring, Lakewood's Tree Save Ordinance authorizes the Code Enforcement Officer or other authorized official to institute any appropriate legal action.

Municipal Manager Thomas L. Henshaw responded to Sharaby's e-mail request for police service to stop the illegal tree removal by instructing Lakewood Police Chief Gregory Meyer to ignore it.

"Chief, (w)e are handling the situation," Henshaw told Meyer in an e-mail he unknowingly copied to Sharaby. "Please disregard any direction other than through my office."

In desperation to stop the illegal deforestation on the site, Sharaby contacted the state DEP, which did not immediately respond to his complaint, as well as 2017 Mayor of Lakewood Raymond Coles.

Sharaby told Coles in a July 25, 2017 e-mail that trees were being cut down on public property without permits to do so.

"I contacted the building dept, zoning dept and the township manager," Sharaby told Coles. "(T)hey are not willing to give any information as to who gave the orders, what is being constructed or to have someone go down and put a stop order (on it)."

Sharaby told Coles that the activity was shrouded in secrecy. He asked Coles for his help.

"You have always been a staunch supporter of transparency on all levels of government," Sharaby told Coles. "I kindly ask you to do something about this."

Sharaby ended his e-mail correspondence with the town's mayor by reminding him that Lakewood was not the wild west.

In his e-mail response, Coles told Sharaby that the township was considering leasing the site to Chemed for construction of a health facility to serve the southern end of town, even though committeemen had already approved a resolution to do so late last year.

Coles acknowledged that the DEP first had to inspect remediation on the site, which a sign posted in front of it indicated was underway, not completed.

"Apparently there was a misunderstanding between our engineers, Remington & Vernick, and the prospective lease holder about how to gain access to the debris pile for this inspection," Coles said. "Work has been stopped until proper authorization can be granted. Once I have an accurate timeline(,) I will be happy to share it."

It's too late to stop the work.

Except for a fringe of trees left standing on the perimeter of the site, between the neighboring supermarket parking lot on one side and the strip mall parking lot on the other side, this editor/reporter for NJ News & Views observed a mountain of mulch where trees formerly stood on the property three days earlier.

The remaining trees not only cast an illusion of arboreal shade for cars parked in the sweltering summer heat beneath them, they also continue to shield development activity on the site from prying eyes.

A dozen years ago, Malchi, like Chemed, envisioned a project on the site of a former dumping ground that would benefit the public it served. However, unlike Chemed, Malchi sought permission in place of forgiveness to develop it.

It is just as easy to ask for the former as it is the latter, but a lot more expensive.

In Lakewood, money talks.

So does political influence.

In a July 27, 2017 e-mail request for comment, NJ News & Views asked Miller several questions.

"Did you use your influence as a member of the Lakewood Township Committee or as last year's mayor to advance construction of the facility being built by your employer, from which you will directly benefit?" this editor/reporter asked Miller.

This editor/reporter also asked Miller another question, which was related to the site's location in the township's UEZ and referenced Malchi's 2005 request to buy Hagaman's Property to expand on-site parking at the supermarket he was redeveloping there.

According to township records, Super Stop Supermarket is a current member of the township's UEZ program.

For decades, Lakewood's UEZ program generated millions of dollars through a reduced state sales tax collected by UEZ members.

A healthcare facility, unlike a supermarket, does not collect state sales tax.

The developer of a healthcare facility that receives a $1,000,000 Federal grant does not require a UEZ loan to build it.

Tax ratables reduce taxpayers' financial obligation to the township because they pay taxes and do not require expensive school district services.

"Do you feel that a tax-exempt business for which you work is preferable on that site to a tax ratable being built in the town you represent?" NJ News & Views asked Miller.

Miller did not respond for comment.

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