BY JOHN VANDIVER
TOMS RIVER BUREAU
LAKEWOOD — Property owners in a largely undeveloped southwest section of the township learned recently that they can build much more on their land than was allowed just a few years ago.
Thus, the phone calls from property owners — some angry, some sensing an opportunity to cash in — have been pouring in all week to the office of Township Committeeman Charles Cunliffe.
"It's been nonstop," said Cunliffe.
But it's also all a big mistake, he said Thursday.
When the Township Committee voted about a year ago to approve a new zoning map, there was a mix-up, Cunliffe said.
The area off Cross Street near the Jackson boundary, a more rural part of town, had been zoned to require 2-acre building lots. The new zoning reduced the minimum lot size to 1 acre. The result: Land value there has more than doubled, Cunliffe said.
"I've been asking the committee to fix it. I was personally assured by the mayor it would be corrected during the master plan revision. It's a huge chunk of land," Cunliffe said.
Now it seems the Master Plan Advisory Committee is poised to recommend the less restrictive zoning that never should have been allowed in the first place, Cunliffe said.
Conflicts of interest?
During the Township Committee meeting Thursday night, Cunliffe said some advisory committee members stand to gain if the zoning is retained. He then called on members of the advisory group to disclose all their financial ties and conflicts connected to the area. "These people are major landowners and developers. That's a conflict of interest," said Cunliffe, talking before the meeting.
He declined to identify which of the advisory committee's 28 members, appointed by the Township Committee, may have a conflict.
"You assume people are going to do the right thing," Cunliffe said.
The zoning mix-up came about because the color-coded zoning map included the change in lot sizes but that change was omitted from the text of the proposal, according to Planning Board Administrator Kevin Kielt.
The omission of the change from the text was the reason the change was inadvertently approved, Cunliffe said.
However, Cunliffe blamed private firms hired to draft the master plan for the omission, and said he believes the mistake was intentional, though he declined to name whom he believes were involved.
"People will assume incorrectly we (Township Committee) were part of the scheme," said Cunliffe.
More than 30 property owners are affected by the mistake, Cunliffe estimated.
About half the telephone calls Cunliffe has received in the past week have been from people urging him to support the more lucrative zoning, he said. The other half are fearful of overdevelopment.
Bill Hobday, an advisory committee member, expressed concern during the Township Committee meeting about the conduct of some of the volunteer advisers. Hobday said information about the advisory committee's meetings had been leaked to residents in the area, violating the panel's policy to keep its deliberations confidential.
"It's something that must be addressed," Hobday told Township Committee members.
The advisory committee makes its recommendations to the Planning Board, which has the authority to approve the plan. But zoning changes must be approved by the Township Committee.
When the advisory committee met Wednesday, the atmosphere was tense, according to Hobday. "It was not one of our nicest committee meetings," he said.
Cunliffe said the township committee learned of its mistake soon after approving the zoning changes last year but opted against amending the plan immediately. It would be easier and more economical to fix the problem during the master plan revision process, which is now nearing its conclusion, members determined.
Every six years, municipalities are required to update their master plans, which function as road maps to guide development.
The advisory committee responsible for drafting the 2006 master plan has been meeting since April. The group has various subcommittees examining different aspects of the plan, from downtown issues to educational matters and potential rezonings.
The advisory committee meets again Sept. 20. The master plan could be considered by the Planning Board as early as Sept. 26 with a public hearing to be held soon after.
In the end, it is the township committee which has the final say on rezoning matters.
"I know where my vote is," Cunliffe said.
John Vandiver: (732) 557-5739 or firstname.lastname@example.org