A letter submitted to the West New York Zoning Board hours before it was scheduled to finalize its decision approving the controversial Meridia Le Boulevard high-rise apartment complex last Thursday halted the proceedings and forced the board to table the matter pending possible litigation.
The letter, written by an attorney representing residents of the nearby Versailles building who have opposed the Meridia for over a year, alleges that two board members who voted to approve the proposal had conflicts of interest and thus should not have been allowed to vote.
The high-rise, which would be built on the corner of Boulevard East and 67th Street, was approved by a 5-2 vote at a Jan. 24 meeting, despite a damning opinion of the proposal from board chairman Kenneth Blane, who referred to the proposal as attempting to “cram an elephant in a hamster cage.”
The two board members that the attorney, Jeffrey Kantowitz, claims should have been disqualified from voting are Armando Alvarez, who serves as a commissioner for the town’s parking authority, and Julio Garcia, who serves on the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) Board. At the January meeting, Garcia moved the application for a vote, and Alvarez seconded it.
“We urge the board to conclude that the participation by these members irrevocably has tainted the entire proceedings, and they must be voided.” – Jeffrey Kantowitz
Upon arriving at the section of the meeting last Thursday meant to finalize the January resolution, Blane ordered that the board go into executive session to discuss the matter. Afterward, Blane revealed that the board unanimously voted to send the matter to court so that a judge could make a declaratory judgment on whether or not Alvarez and Garcia did indeed have a conflict of interest.
What’s a ‘position?’
The relevant case law, which Kantowitz referred to in his letter, is a section of the Municipal Land Use Law which stipulates that no zoning board member “may hold any elective office or position under the municipality.”
According to Blane, a judge will have to decide the definition of the word “position.” It is unclear whether the Parking Authority, on which Alvarez serves, would be considered an independent entity. Members of the ABC board, such as Garcia, are directly appointed by a municipality’s governing body, in this case the West New York Board of Commissioners.
“As far as I know, I’m not aware that there’s any legal definition of the word ‘position,’” he said. “This is an issue that may be important to zoning boards statewide.”
Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, the zoning board’s attorney, said that the declaratory judgment would serve to clear a grey area about who can and cannot serve on the board.
“By sending the matter to court we’re essentially trying to protect the board,” she said. “We want some clarity with respect to some of the board members.”
With regards to Alvarez and Garcia, Carrillo-Perez said that the board is not responsible for performing due diligence on new members, as they are appointed by the Board of Commissioners. She said that despite the law barring members from holding elective office or another position within the municipality, “we would not be aware of that.”
“The board simply gets a list from the governing body that says ‘Here are your new members,’ and we go from there,” she said. “We wouldn’t technically know whether they were serving on other boards at the time they were appointed or if they were subsequently appointed while serving on the zoning board.”
Alvarez’s involvement with the Parking Authority was revealed at the January meeting, before the vote was taken, when Carrillo-Perez disclosed that she had discovered a financial relationship between the Meridia’s developer, Capodagli Properties, and the authority.
After consulting with Carrillo-Perez, Blane stated that the zoning board’s governing ordinance states that it is up to the board member to decide if there is a conflict of interest, and that the decision whether to vote lies solely with him or her.
Alvarez stated that he believed no conflict existed, and voted in favor of Capodagli’s application.
But despite Alvarez’s insistence that there was no conflict, his involvement may still bode poorly for proponents of the Meridia. In his letter, Kantowitz referred to a 1960 court case, Griggs v. Borough of Princeton, which stipulated that it is not the presence of an actual conflict that matters, but rather the potential for conflict.
“It’s the potential for conflict, not an actual influence, and not that an individual succumbs to the temptation, that is decisive,” wrote Kantowitz.
It is unclear whether the case will come before a judge before the zoning board’s next meeting, which is scheduled for March 28.
Blane expressed a hope that the integrity of the board would be upheld, but said that making the right decision on behalf of the town’s well being was paramount.
“It’s possible that a judge will find that all sitting members of the board were properly appointed, and we certainly hope that’s the case,” he said. “However, the board unanimously felt that this issue strikes at the heart of the operation of the zoning board and should be decided by a court of law as soon as possible.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
As Meridia proposal drags on, a new high-rise already causes a stir
It wasn’t the revelation of possible litigation regarding the controversial Meridia Le Boulevard proposal that caused the most uproar at last Thursday’s meeting, but rather a new proposal to build a seven-story apartment complex just down the road on Boulevard East, at the intersection with Monitor Place.
The proposal is being referred to as “The New Alpy,” due to the fact that it is being proposed for the same property as a ten-story high rise that was unanimously voted down by the zoning board in 2010.
Residents opposed to the Meridia Le Boulevard have used the Alpy proposal as an example of why that complex should not be approved, and now Monitor Place residents are doing the same, this time fighting a proposal much closer to home.
So close to home, in fact, that Dan DiDio, who owns a neighboring property, would have less than a foot between his house and the proposed “new Alpy.”
“Nothing about this proposal adds anything to the neighborhood,” DiDio said. “It’s not like this is an area in need of redevelopment, it’s a beautiful area. The only thing this will add is money in the developer’s pocket.”
The developer, Joseph Felice, is being represented by Alvaro Alonso, the same attorney representing the Meridia’s developer, Capodagli Properties. Alonso did not return a call for comment.
The issue was up for discussion at the most recent zoning board meeting, but was tabled after it was discovered that the board could not form the necessary quorum to discuss it. Kenneth Blane, the board’s chairman, lives in the nearby Riviera building, and thus was required to recuse himself as per the board’s by-laws.
After it was revealed that the matter would be tabled, residents reacted angrily. One man, Juan Martinez, said that he had taken a day off work to attend the meeting, and did not understand why the board could not summon its alternate members to form a quorum.
Julio Garcia, the zoning board member sitting in for Blane, responded by saying, “Your work is your business. No one is holding a gun to your head and saying you have to be here.”
Garcia’s comment was met with uproar from the audience, and nearly every subsequent member of the public to comment derided him for what they called a disrespectful and unprofessional attitude.
One member of the public who did not, however, was Georgiana Sziszaka, 13, who made the point that West New York is already one of the most densely populated towns in the country, without bringing in more high-rises.
“The town already has too many people, and it affects me because that means there will be more students, and the schools are already overcrowded,” she said.
Garcia apologized for his comment at the behest of the board’s attorney, Jennifer Carrillo-Perez.
The matter will next come up for discussion at the board’s next meeting, scheduled to be held March 28.