Sunday, August 07, 2005

Does the arm of 1260 Stelton have Monmouth in its grasp?

Published in The Bayshore Courier on July 21, 2005.

Does the arm of 1260 Stelton have Monmouth in its grasp?

Staff Writer

The Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station redevelopment project has been on the road to nowhere for over two years.

The project has been bogged down in litigation and the disintegration of an interlocal services agreement between the Democrat-controlled Aberdeen Township Council and the Republican-controlled Matawan Borough Council.

In an interview shortly after former Councilman Michael Cannon announced his retirement from Matawan Borough's governing body, Cannon said the borough was close to reaching a settlement with Silver Oaks Properties.

Silver Oaks Properties was the developer chosen by Aberdeen for the redevelopment project, while Matawan chose the Columbia Group, a Piscataway-based company run by developer Jack Morris.

For Mark Coren, Aberdeen's township manager, the decision of the Matawan Borough Council to break with the spirit of the interlocal services agreement in favor of the Columbia Group's proposal left him “mystified.”

In a letter to former Matawan Borough Administrator and current Middlesex Republican Chairman Joe Leo, dated October 24, 2002, Coren wrote, “Now we have the third group represented by the Columbia Group making an end run around the interlocal process that was agreed to by both councils by attempting to negotiate directly with one of the towns at the exclusion of the other partner in this process. This, in the opinion of the Township of Aberdeen, works contrary to the letter and spirit of the interlocal agreement entered into in good faith.”

For Coren, the Columbia Group's proposal did not meet the best interests of either municipality. The plan, as described by Richard Coppola, planner for the interlocal agency, on September 23, 2002, included 1,000 residential dwelling units. Coren said he believed the residential portion of the Columbia Group's proposal would put a substantial strain on the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District.

Coppola agreed that the Columbia Group's proposal did not meet the specifications detailed by the interlocal service agreement.

“This proposal does not diversify the tax base, Most of the proposed development is residential. It continues the reliance of the towns on the residential taxpayer to fund municipal services. Since most of the development activity is in one town [versus] the other the benefit that is derived is skewed,” Coppola wrote in the September 23, 2002 report. “This is very divisive and not consistent with the underlying goal of the legislators of the 13th District to have the two towns working together.”

Two years earlier, in November 2000, Coren said he, Leo, former Matawan Mayor and current Freeholder Robert Clifton and other Aberdeen and Matawan officials met with state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, at the senator's offices at Arin Park, in Middletown.

“The senator told us the two towns should work together and hold a public process that was fair and open,” Coren said.

The Matawan Borough Council eventually chose the Columbia Group, along with K. Hovnanian and Mack-Cali Realty, as the redevelopment team for the borough in a resolution adopted December 3, 2002.

About two weeks later, on or about December 16, 2002, Kyrillos again met with Coren and Leo at Arin Park, Coren said.

“It was the first time that it became clear to Joe Leo and myself that there was a preference made by a state senator,” Coren said. “Sen. Kyrillos told me that I had drafted the RFP ['request for proposal' defining bid specifications] too tight.”

Matawan's December 3, 2002 resolution marked the end of the cooperative process between the two towns, as well as an end to the long-term vision Coren had for the revitalization of both communities.

With Coren scheduled to retire at the end of this year, after 18 years of service on both Republican- and Democrat-majority Aberdeen Township Councils, the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station redevelopment project was supposed to be the pinnacle of his career. Instead, it dissolved into the quagmire where it currently remains.

“It's very disappointing. There were a lot of expectations that this project could really do something good for this entire area,” Coren said.

The Morris Factor

Who exactly is Jack Morris? A scan of Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) reports show that the Middlesex-based developer has no qualms about heavily funding politicos and political parties on both sides of the aisle.

Since 2000, Morris and his companies have contributed over $500,000 to Democrats and Democratic political organizations throughout the state. Of that money, $140,000 went to the Middlesex Democratic Organization PAC, ELEC reports show.

During the 2002 freeholder race in Middlesex County, Republican candidates Joe Paone and Roger Craig issued a press release calling for Middlesex County and the state to stop payment on an Edison land deal between Morris and the township.

“Craig and Paone had asked the state Attorney General's office…to investigate the Oak Tree Pond land deal in Edison, citing the fact that a major Democratic campaign contributor [Jack Morris] made a $4.2 million profit on property he owned for seven months, that even a fellow Democrat said 'isn't worth that kind of money,'” Paone's and Craig's release said.

According to a May 30, 2002 Star-Ledger article filed by Josh Margolin, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office investigated the land transaction. However, the investigation into the land deal died out without any charges filed, though investigators acknowledged that “key critics” had not been interviewed, nor was the land appraisal thoroughly looked into, according to Margolin's article.

But Middlesex Democrats aren't the only ones who have benefited from Morris's generosity.

From April 1999 until April 2004, Kyrillos accepted $47,200 from Morris and Morris's companies, ELEC reports show. Of the $47,200, $9,000 came from five contributions made from five different Morris companies in April 1999. Also, on May 17, 2000, Morris and his companies made seven $1,800 donations, totaling $12,600, according to ELEC reports. Three of the donations came directly from Morris, while four contributions came from separate Morris companies: JSM @ Bridgewater LLC, JSM @ Brookside LLC, JSM @ Timber Glen LLC and JSM @ Woodbridge LLC.

Additionally, Morris's company JSM @ New Durham LLC made a $10,000 contribution to Kyrillos's campaign funds on October 1, 2001 and a $5,600 contribution on October 2, 2001, according to ELEC reports. While the $5,600 contribution from JSM @ New Durham LLC was immediately returned, Kyrillos's campaign accepted another $5,600 from a Morris company, JSM @ Monmouth Road, a month later on November 1, 2001. Furthermore, two employees of JSM @ Monmouth Road made $1,866.67 contributions to Kyrillos's campaign and a third made a $1,866.66 contribution, all on November 1, 2001, according to ELEC reports.

Morris's companies also gave a $2,200 contribution to Kyrillos's campaign funds on October 17, 2003 and another $2,200 contribution on April 30, 2004.

On February 23, 2005, a day after that infamous day in Monmouth's history when 11 officials were taken away in handcuffs on bribery and corruption charges by the FBI, Kyrillos's campaign returned five $1,800 contributions to Morris and his wife. Whether the five contributions returned came from the April 1999 or the May 17, 2000 transactions is unclear in the campaign's ELEC reports.

Kyrillos's July 15, 2005 quarterly report was not available on-line at ELEC's website by press time.

Current election law stipulates that the maximum amount a candidate can receive from an individual, corporation or union is $2,600 per election cycle. Businesses designated “limited liability companies,” or LLCs, cannot make a contribution as an entity, according to ELEC. A check made on behalf of an LLC is not considered a contribution by the LLC, but rather a donation by the member of the LLC who signed the check. Therefore, an individual who is a partner in an LLC can, at maximum, contribute a total of $2,600 per election cycle under both the LLC and the individual's name.

In addition to the $47,200 that Morris and his companies contributed to Kyrillos's campaign funds, the New Jersey Republican State Committee received $30,000 in contributions from a Morris company during the time that Kyrillos was chairman of the state party. Smith Street Properties Inc. contributed $20,000 to the New Jersey State Republican Committee on November 4, 2002 and $10,000 on May 7, 2003.

The $20,000 contribution came one month before the Matawan Borough Council approved the resolution selecting the Columbia Group as the head of its redevelopment team.

Furthermore, Smith Street Properties made a $10,000 contribution to the Monmouth County Republican Committee on December 29, 2004.

Other Morris developments

According to the official website of Edgewood Properties, a Morris company, the developer has constructed or is in the process of constructing over 700 homes, 1,600 rental units and 500,000 square feet of retail space, with plans of doubling the number of rental units and square feet of retail space during the next three years.

The website notes, “Jack Morris's proven talent for obtaining the cooperation of the municipalities in which Edgewood operates results in real estate development that benefits both public and private sectors.”

Time will tell whether or not Morris's “proven talent” will result in the successful realization of the Columbia Group's vision of the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station redevelopment project.

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