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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Golf club 'rules' spat goes into stalemate

By NYIER ABDOU
Star-Ledger Staff

'Cottage' zoning vexes Peapack-Gladstone

A standoff has developed in Peapack-Gladstone over residences at the upscale Hamilton Farm Golf Club.

The controversy centers on the intended use of 18 so-called cottages the prestigious Gladstone club's owner plans to build and the strong objections to the project by the club's neighbors and the borough zoning officer.

The bucolic hills of Hamilton Farm in Somerset County, once the James Cox Brady estate, stretch 535 acres west of Fowler Road, south of Pottersville Road. The club hosts two premier golf courses and is used as training grounds for the United States Olympic Equestrian Team.

The vision for the club has evolved over the years from appealing to ultra-elite corporate members to a more traditional membership. The four-bedroom cottages, some designed to be almost 4,000 square feet and located between Fowler Road and Route 206 -- were originally intended for corporate members to entertain clients with occasional overnight stays.

The local land-use board approved the cottages in January 1999, but the club eventually changed hands -- from Lucent Technologies to Dennis Townsend, chairman of Townsend Capital, of Towson, Md. -- and the new owner had a different vision. In March 2005, the club applied to the board to make the cottages permanent single-family homes in an age-restricted community.

The application was withdrawn in July 2005 after the club encountered stiff resistance from neighbors of the property.

But a group of neighbors, Friends of Peapack-Gladstone, say the conversion of the dwellings didn't die when Townsend pulled the application. And in a lawsuit filed Tuesday Friends of Peapack-Gladstone claim the residences are currently being marketed for sale as single-family, year-round homes.

A statement included in the complaint details a visit to the club earlier this month by prospective buyer Ilene Hochberg and her real estate agent. Hochberg says she met Hamilton Farm Marketing Director Alyson Ramsey Johnson, who explained the borough's zoning restrictions prohibited her from living in one of the homes for more than eight consecutive months a year. According to the statement, Johnson went on to assure Hochberg the "clock would be reset" if she simply left the property for a weekend.

"(Johnson) further stated that this is merely a technical requirement and that no one would be aware if I (Hochberg) had in fact left for the weekend," the statement reads.

The only thing that would "tip municipal officials off" that Hochberg was living in the home year-round at the club would be if she made the mistake of enrolling children in local schools, Hochberg said Johnson told her.

Consequently, "Hamilton Farm has been recommending to prospective home buyers they enroll their children in private schools," Hochberg said.

"They're not getting away with this," said Stuart Lieberman, an attorney representing some of the neighbors. "Maybe they charge half a million dollars for membership, (so) they think they are above the law. But it doesn't fly."

A single membership at the club starts at $225,000.

David Townsend, president of the club and Townsend Capital, flatly denied the lawsuit's claims. He stressed the club is building impermanent residences "in accordance with zoning regulations."

"Nothing has changed," David Townsend said. "These are meant to be second homes for members of the club."

David Townsend noted he is set to meet with one of the concerned neighbors later this month.

"I think there are some misunderstandings (among neighbors) about what rights we do have," Townsend said. The plans for the four-bedroom residences, he said, are "strictly in accordance with what is required by Peapack-Gladstone."

But zoning officer Len Taylor reads the situation differently. Taylor approved the club's application for a construction permit for the first house in fall 2005. An application for the second house was already under consideration when Taylor saw a large Burgdorff Realtors advertisement for the homes in a local newspaper.

The listing, Taylor said, suggested the houses were being sold as year-round residences. He rejected the application.

"I was ready to approve it," Taylor said Wednesday. "They met all the zoning perimeters." But the real estate listing changed his mind.

"(The houses) were not just going to be for overnight guests and meetings," said Taylor. "I'm working with the 1999 resolution."

But David Townsend dismissed the 1999 resolution as "no longer relevant," saying subsequent approvals by the board "both changed and then clarified" how the houses would be used.
"There were significant changes to how the land could be developed," he said.

Borough planners Coppola & Coppola Associates seem to disagree. A June 14, 2005, document by the firm notes the original board resolution of Feb. 3, 1999, approved the golf cottages with a condition "limiting the use of the cottages for golf use only and prohibiting the use of said cottages for single-family residential use."

The use restriction, the document says, "was reiterated by the Land Use Board as part of subsequent approvals."

"There's a difference of interpretation," said Taylor.

The club could appeal to the land-use board for an interpretation and Taylor said they intend to do so. But Thomas Malman, the club's attorney, said no appeal had been filed as of Friday.

David Townsend also said he was "highly skeptical" of the claims made by Ilene Hochberg.

"I would doubt that those comments were made," Townsend said.

Nyier Abdou works in the Somerset County bureau. She may be reached at nabdou@starledger.com or (908) 429-9925.