Legal appeals exhausted, town looks to a deal to stop construction of 120 homes

Photo courtesy of Sharbell The Gordon-Simpson Tract project on Gordon Road near Route 130 includes 120 single-family homes (shown lower right) that the township does not want built.

Photo courtesy of Sharbell
The Gordon-Simpson Tract project on Gordon Road near Route 130 includes 120 single-family homes (shown lower right) that the township does not want built.

With the state Supreme Court saying it won’t get involved in the township’s dispute with Sharbell over the conversion of unbuilt senior townhomes into 120 houses for families of any age, the controversy moves from the courtroom to the boardroom.

The  township has been in a two-year legal battle with Sharbell over the Gordon-Simpson tract conversion, contending its school buildings can’t accommodate the new students that 120 single-family homes near Gordon Road will bring. The Supreme Court notified both sides last week it would not hear the case, which means an appellate court’s decision allowing the conversion stands.

Whether the 120 homes are actually built, however, depends on the outcome of discussions Sharbell is having with a private business entity that is eyeing the converted lots for a new recreational facility. The township has also proposed buying half the converted lots from Sharbell for multipurpose fields in order to reduce the number of new homes that can be built there.

“There are two or three options out there and we’re exploring them all in detail now that we know there will be no further delay on the legal side,” Sharbell’s senior vice president, Tom Troy said after the high court refused to take the case.

“We hope that in the next couple of weeks we’ll be at a point where we can make a decision,” Troy said. “I don’t think it will be much longer than that.”

Troy said there already had been “enough background dialog going on” with the interested parties while the litigation worked its way through the court system. He declined to identify the private company or discuss the specifics of its proposal.

Mayor Dave Fried said he was aware that Sharbell was in talks with another company on a possible deal for a recreation project on the site – a use that would require township approval.

“Depending on what it looks like, we may not be opposed to that,” Fried said. “The township is certainly willing to listen to the recreation (facility) idea,” he said, referring to the private company’s project.

The other option before Sharbell is the mayor’s idea to use the township open space fund to buy a portion of the converted lots so that fewer homes are built. Neither side has revealed what that would cost.

“The township doesn’t have the money to buy the whole thing, but we could buy about half of it,” Fried said.  “It makes perfect sense for us to put recreation fields there because the site is halfway between Tantum Park and Community Park.”

The Gordon-Simpson Tract project is an unbuilt 439-acre mixed-use residential and commercial project near Route 130 North and Gordon Road. The 120 converted lots at the center of the two-year legal battle comprise about 35 acres but are near 150 acres of open space, including wetlands and uplands, Troy said.

“Prior discussions anticipated that if the town were to acquire 50 percent of the lots – hypothetically – then an equivalent amount of the open space would also be acquired in that sale,” Troy said. “The recent discussions with the private concern have been geared toward their acquiring the majority of the converted lots, rather than the portion remaining if the town were to buy half.”

Troy stressed that all discussions with the town and the private company have been preliminary and that Sharbell had reached no decision on whether it will move forward with 120 houses allowed by the courts or choose one of the other options.

Fried expressed his frustration with the 2009 state law, which has since sunset, that allowed New Jersey developers with approved but unbuilt age-restricted housing to convert the units to all-age housing provided 20 percent were set aside as affordable units. Sharbell filed its application with the Planning Board to convert 150 senior townhouses into 120 single-family homes before the conversion law expired.

“It was a bad law,” said Fried, who had hoped the state Supreme Court would overturn it on constitutional grounds because it usurped the ability of municipalities to make land use decisions affecting their communities.

After the Robbinsville Planning Board denied Sharbell’s conversion application in 2011, the developer took the township to court. State Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg found in favor of Sharbell, and an appellate panel upheld her decision. Troy said the Supreme Court notified both sides just before the July Fourth holiday that it would not hear the township’s appeal.

The court battle with Sharbell over the Gordon-Simpson tract conversion has cost the township $40,259, according to Township Engineer Tim McGough.  Planning Board Attorney Jerry Dasti was paid $13,287 to defend the board decision in court when Sharbell sued after its conversion application was denied. The Planning Board’s appeal of Judge Feinberg’s decision in favor of Sharbell cost another $21,923.  The legal work associated with filing a petition with the Supreme Court to hear the case added another $5,049 to the bill, he said.

Sharbell has already been granted final major subdivision approval for phases of the Gordon-Simpson project that include a 24-unit condominium building, 14 single-family homes, 16 townhomes and a lot that will be given to the township for the future development of a 60-unit Project Freedom facility for disabled people.

The developer has been waiting for the litigation surrounding the 120 converted residential lots to be resolved before moving forward with any part of the project. Ground has not been broken yet, though Troy said that could happen sometime later this summer.








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