Editorial by Joyce Blay- Posted October 15, 2006
Half a year ago, the first story posted on NJ News & Views reported that a Lakewood developer was building an addition to his office on township land and that the township was doing nothing about it.
Nothing has changed since March.
Developer Raphael (Ralph) Zucker, whose 2-story office/retail building is located at 911 East County Line Road, is still building an addition on the former location of Twin Oaks Drive.
It is nearly completed.
In 2002, the Lakewood Planning Board approved another developer's application to move Twin Oaks Drive, which is a township roadway off East County Line Road.
The planning board dedicated the triangular portion where Twin Oaks Drive was formerly located as deed-restricted, green open space. The land was and still is owned by the township, according to information available in the Office of the Lakewood Tax Assessor.
After the road was moved, residents told NJ News & Views that Zucker paved it over and used it as a parking lot.
In 2004, Zucker applied to the township for permission to construct a building addition on the land. One of the documents Zucker submitted with the application indicated he was the owner of the township land, even though he told NJ News & Views in March he was not.
Township employees in both zoning and planning said applicants are not asked to provide documents proving ownership when applying to be heard by either board.
On a tape of the September 28 committee meeting, resident Gerri Ballwanz said she had researched ownership of the property and that the deed stated it belonged to the township.
"Evidently, you are the owner of this property," Ballwanz told committeemen.
Township Attorney Steven Secare responded to her comment.
"I'm in negotiations with the builder's attorney on a price," Secare told her.
Secare said he was not going to bore Ballwanz with details of the negotiations, even though Ballwanz said she wanted to hear them. Secare referred to the township, which is the current owner of the land, as the prior owner. He also said that Zucker had not offered an acceptable price for the land, but did not disclose the offer price.
"I have threatened them with quiet title action," Secare told Ballwanz.
Wikipedia, an Internet encyclopedia, defines quiet title action as a lawsuit filed in a court having jurisdiction over land disputes. The complaint is based on the assumption that title to the property is ambiguous. Wikipedia lists fraudulent conveyance as one such basis for a complaint.
If Zucker unknowingly paid a third party for township land, a quiet title action might be appropriate. However, Zucker knowingly took possession of public land and did not pay the township a dime for it. Worse, he asked the township for permission to build on public land and public officials granted his request.
A reporter for NJ News & Views contacted Secare several days after the meeting. The reporter left a message for Secare asking if the township intended to file a criminal complaint against Zucker, who filed a false statement of ownership with the zoning board in 2004.
Secare did not return the reporter's call.
The reporter contacted Deputy Mayor Raymond Coles over a week ago to ask the committeeman the same question. The reporter also asked why the governing body would entertain the sale of open space township land without first discussing it in public.
"We're involved with negotiations (to sell township land) all the time," Coles said. "We have our professionals look at it all the time. If we can put it back on the tax rolls, that's what we try to do."
Coles said the committee, not the planning board, was the only governing body that could encumber township property. He did not remember the committee designating any township land for open space in recent years.
None of the ordinances the committee passed in 2002 and 2003 dedicated the former portion of Twin Oaks Drive for open space.
Coles said that if the zoning board did not verify ownership of the land on which Zucker applied to build the addition to his office, it was not intentional.
"Somebody in the zoning office screwed up by not checking the information," Coles said. "If somebody made a mistake, we need to rectify it. If somebody did something criminal (they have to be prosecuted)."
When asked when that would happen, Coles defended Zucker.
"I'm sure since it's Ralph Zucker, everyone is upset by it," Coles said. "If it were anyone else other than an Orthodox, it would be all right."
According to planning board meeting minutes from 2002, it was Orthodox residents of The Villas, a development Zucker built behind his office, who requested that the former location of Twin Oaks Drive be dedicated to open space.
New homes in The Villas are advertised at a starting price of more than half a million dollars each.
Coles compared Zucker's taking of public land to expand his building with the recent discovery that a predominantly black cemetery had accidentally buried its dead on adjacent township land.
Husband and wife Moses and Minna Shvarzblat, who own a furniture store on Clifton Avenue and a furniture warehouse next to Greenwood Cemetery, which fronts Cedar Bridge Avenue, are building a luxury residential and commercial development on the former township land.
"When they started clearing the land, they found the cemetery had over-expanded," Coles said. "They didn't tell the cemetery to remove bodies. No one is upset about the dead (being buried on township property), but because someone built on a township road, they're upset."
Ballwanz is not just upset. She told Secare at the committee meeting she wanted Zucker punished for his actions.
"I hope there will be fines and the price will be quite hefty," Ballwanz said on the tape. "For (Zucker) to thumb his nose at us is outrageous."
NJ News & Views agrees.
Committeemen Marc (Meir) Lichtenstein, this year's Mayor of Lakewood, and Menashe Miller are running for re-election. Miller, a Republican, is a member of the planning board. Lichtenstein's Democratic running mate, Michael Sernotti, is chairman of the zoning board.
None of the candidates have spoken out against Zucker's deception. No complaint was filed with the county prosecutor's office.
Public officials share the guilt of those they permit to break the law.