The Morris Canal Manor project is once again facing a legal challenge, with a lawsuit seeking to repeal recent amendments made regarding the controversial Bergen-Lafayette project.
The Morris Canal Community Development Corporation and their executive director, June Jones, have sued Jersey City over the project, arguing that the amendments were a case of “improper and illegal government activity to benefit a private developer at the expense of the broader community.”
The manor is a proposed 17-story mixed-use community center by Skyline Development Group that is part of the Morris Canal Redevelopment Plan. The project, which was initially introduced in 2020, would include a recreational center, incubators for female or minority-owned businesses, and a public plaza.
The project however has been met with concerns by a number of residents over how it would affect the Bergen-Lafayette neighborhood, particularly over its height and the amount of affordable housing.
The lawsuit, filed in Hudson County Superior Court, lists the city of Jersey City, the Division of City Planning and the Planning Board as the defendants.
History repeats itself
The new lawsuit stems from an initial lawsuit that was filed in Hudson County Superior Court last year by Jones and the MCCDC over the project, alleging that the plan was only possible through “illicit spot zoning” and that it violated the redevelopment plan.
The lawsuit had targeted the initial amendments made for the project back in late 2020, and Judge Anthony D’Elia ordered them to be sent back last September so that more explanations can be given that they’re consistent with the city’s Master Plan.
After the ruling, the amendments for the project were approved by the Planning Board last December and sent to the City Council. But the council then voted to table the ordinance for adoption on Feb. 9, with Councilman Frank Gilmore voicing community concerns over the project’s impact, and Jones saying that they were planning to talk with the developers about it.
But the amendments were then untabled and adopted at the council’s March 9 meeting, despite the objections of Gilmore and Jones.
Corporation Counsel Peter Baker explained in his legal opinion at the time that the findings made by the Planning Board were not arbitrary and capricious, and that defeating the amendments would expose the city and the council to legal liability.
In the new lawsuit against the new amendments, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants did not comply with the terms of the judge’s remand and violated other provisions of New Jersey law.
“Defendants were required to articulate a factual basis for findings that the amendments (1) are consistent with the Master Plan or in the city’s best interests and (2) better advance the general welfare than the previous plan for the property,” reads the lawsuit.
The lawsuit continued that the defendants did not “sufficiently” articulate the factual bases for the amendment’s consistency with the Master Plan, and that a finding was not made regarding whether or not they “better advance the public welfare than the previous plan.”
It also argues that the amendments violate the city’s new inclusionary zoning ordinance, which mandates 10 percent of affordable housing in the area, and that the project only provides five percent of affordable housing.
The plaintiffs are being represented by William Matsikodis, Derek Fanciullo and Caleb Thomas of Matsikoudis & Fanciullo, and Renée Steinhagen of New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center, all who had represented Jones and the MCCDC in the previous lawsuit.
“We had no choice”
In an interview with the Hudson Reporter, Jones said that they decided to file another lawsuit because there was no compromise on the project.
Jones had told the Hudson Reporter back in March that they would potentially look at litigation after the amendments were adopted. She then said later that month that she was asking Skyline owner Lou Mont for more flexibility regarding the project, and that litigation would only slow things down.
“We set up meetings and we actually went as far as engaging with community architects to give the developer the density that [Mont] needed,” said Jones.
Jones had voiced concerns over the 17-story height of the project, which she says will look out of place in the neighborhood and could potentially set a precedence with more high rises in the area.
The community along with local architects had proposed a compromise vision that would provide the density that Skyline needed but without the 17-story height, as well keep other elements such as the recreational center and push it to be bigger. But Jones said that Mont still wanted the 17-stories.
“The council still voted on that,” she said. “Unequivocally, they did not listen to the the complaints of the community, nor did they follow the direction of what the remand was. We had no choice but to file another lawsuit to try and address the negligence of their response.”
Jersey City spokesperson Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione called the basis of the lawsuit “nonsensical.”
“The fact is, the judge specifically and very clearly declined to strike down the plan, but rather, he only asked for a record of how it was consistent with the Master Plan, which was provided,” she said.
“The additional details from the Planning Board were also provided to the City Council to ensure the council and community have full knowledge of the judge’s instructions and to ensure full transparency throughout the entire process,” she continued.
Mont said that the project fits with the Master Plan, and that they’re in the process of finalizing the design for it before going with a site plan application to the Planning Board. “The rest of what’s in the suit, we’ll have to let the judge go ahead and hear it and make his decision,” he said.