POSTPONED: EAGLE RIDGE: Township cites ‘conflict of interest’ & The Fascinating Details Behind It


UPDATE: The Eagle Ridge Application will not be heard tonight. The Township announced due to a ‘conflict of interest’ it will be postponed and will re-adjourn on April 2nd.

A few members of the Township Planning Board have ‘conflicts of interest’ that will prevent them from voting on it. Additionally, two Township members were ‘unable to make it,’ so it had to be postponed.

Plans for the Eagle Ridge project will be presented Tuesday night to the Lakewood Planning Board for approval, at the Lakewood Municipal Building, 231 3rd Street, at 6:00 p.m.

As reported a few weeks ago, a judge issued an injunction (“restraining order”) to delay GDMS Holdings from moving forward with their application, but on Monday the Judge ruled it may go forward and it will be presented tonight to the Lakewood planning board for approval.

The application being presented is a General Development Application, or GDP, and serves to obtain preliminary approval. Plans will still need Planning Board approval at each stage of building.

It should be noted, that the planning board doesn’t seem to have a choice whether to accept or deny this application. They have to accept it. The reason is, the application is a conforming one, it does not rely on any variances.

The Township Planning Board adopts a Master Plan (a zoning plan for the entire Lakewood) every 10 years. The developers plan for Eagle Ridge conform with the current Master Plan (which was compiled in 2017 and voted into law as ordinances by the Township Committee) and therefore the township cannot deny it. [If, however, the developers were submitting a plan with variances to the township’s zoning plan (a variance is a request to deviate from current zoning requirements), then the planning board can deny it.]

If the planning board were to deny the application, they would get sued and would probably lose the lawsuit. The reason for this is because, as a general rule, investors would lose millions of dollars if their plans – which conform with the zoning map – are denied post-purchase. Furthermore, investors would never invest if they can’t rely on the current Master Plan, hence it’s practically impossible to win this in court. For the board to deny the application and end up in court over it – a virtually guaranteed loss in court – would be a complete waste of taxpayer dollars. Therefore, there’s no feasible for the Planning Board to deny it, even if every member on the Planning Board would be vehemently opposed to it.

Therefore, although there may be voices tonight who protest this plan at the board meeting, it’s tantamount to protesting a president after he’s already voted into office – there’s simply nothing to do about it.

The Million Dollar Question

The million dollar question is, granted the developers plan conforms with the Master Plan’s zoning map, but why in the world would the members of the Planning Board create a Master Plan that would allow zoning for this project, without a contingency to improve the surrounding roads? Being that the area of Prospect and Cross street cannot handle more traffic than it already has, shouldn’t the zoning for an additional 1,000 families be contingent on improving the traffic conditions for that area (e.g. by adding lanes and traffic lights)?

The answer is: Yes. The Planning Board did include this contingency in its 2017 Master Plan. Zoning for that area (for the number of houses being built) was contingent on improvements made to surrounding roads, including Route 9, Cross Street, and Prospect Street.

However, the developer who currently owns Eagle Ridge filed a lawsuit shortly after the township adapted the Master Plan (which included the contingencies). The lawsuit alleged that the zoning contingencies were illegal, based on the fact that they hinged upon improvements to uncontrollable County and State roads, and the ordinance is thereby “arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable”. [If improving the nearby roads was just a money issue, the developers may not have fought those contingencies, because everyone wants the roads to be drivable. However, it’s not just a money issue, it’s dealing with years and years of permits from the state and county – if it even receives a permit at all.]

The developers won the lawsuit, and, as a result, those contingencies were deemed legally invalid, thereby paving the way for developers to build 556 houses on the site of Eagle Ridge Golf Club without first improving area roads.

[The township Attorney made their case in support of the contingencies. Ocean County Superior Court Judge Marlene Lynch Ford issued a ruling in April, 2018, expressing sympathy for the reasoning of the Township attorney, but ultimately ruling that the contingencies were not legal. Based on a provision in the Master Plan that reads, “If any (part of the Master Plan) is judged unconstitutional or invalid, such judgment shall not effect, impair, or invalidate the remainder of this ordinance,” the judge ruled that the zoning changes take effect even though the contingencies were deemed illegal.]

Now, had this ruling from the judge been public, there would undoubtedly been calls for the township to file an appeal. However, the public only learned about the judge’s ruling after the time frame to appeal already passed! Even members of the township government had not learned about the judge’s ruling until after the timeframe to appeal it (30 days) has already passed. This is where it sounds sketchy. Many people – including a member from the planning board – have expressed frustration that they did not learn of this ruling until after the timeframe to appeal it has passed. The seeming obscurity of the lawsuit raises eyebrows.

It should be noted that, as with any town, there are dozens of lawsuits that the township is involved with and members of the committee are not updated on every single one.

But what is surprising, is the fact that committeemen were not notified at all about the judge’s ruling.

The plans for development have garnered a lot of opposition, with the most vocal dissention coming from the neighboring Fairways Adult Committee, but backlash also came from hundreds of residents who live in the surrounding areas who deal with the area traffic each morning, and realize that it’s simply impossible to have another thousand cars there without road improvements. The traffic is so bad already; this will make it so much worse.

However, the time for the opposition’s voice to be heard was for 30 days after the judge’s ruling – when an appeal could have been filed. Now, however, there’s absolutely nothing to do about it. The members of the planning board may sympathize and may silently be protesting along with the expected protesters tonight, but they don’t have the power to deny it; in fact, the members themselves sided with the opposition and embedded the contingencies in their Master Plan.

Protests are likely to spark up tonight at the meeting, which is open to the public. It’ll be will be interesting to watch (the lawyer for the neighboring community will make his case as well); however, most of the people protesting may not realize that the planning board is not able to deny it, even if they want to. dug deeper into the seeming obscurity of the lawsuit and why no one found out about it until after the timeframe to appeal it has passed, but we cannot make our findings public yet.

It is curious that the attorney for the Lakewood Township Planning Board, John Jackson, was arguing in court for the injunction to be removed (thus allowing the matter to be presented to the planning board), after all, the injunction was between a private investor vs. a nearby community, why, then, would the township take any interest in the case – why would they advocate for the removal of the injunction? It’s possible that the lawsuit alleged that the planning board did something wrong, and therefore the township lawyer had to be there to defend it.

We reached out to the Township attorney with this question, but he declined to comment.