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Published: Tuesday, November 25, 2008
By EMILY PREVITI
Staff Writer, 609-272-7221
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Ralph Pappas can finally move into his dream house.
One might expect him to be thankful or excited. It is, after all, the holiday season, and an artificial tree purchased to celebrate his son's first Christmas is waiting inside the 2,500-square-foot house.
But that holiday came and went 20 years ago, and the ordeal since then has left Pappas with mixed feelings.
Pappas finished building his house Aug. 13, 1988, the day his son was born, but wasn't granted a certificate of occupancy until Thursday. The permit was issued as a result of a state Appellate Court ruling Oct. 20, which marked the end of a 17-year fight between Pappas and the state Pinelands Commission.
"This was one of the most difficult things I've been through in my entire life," he said Monday.
The battle hinged on whether pre-approved development damaged or encroached on wetlands on his 20 forested acres off Frankfurt Avenue in the Germania section of Galloway Township.
The Appellate Court decision reversed the commission's refusal to grant Pappas a waiver that would have allowed a shed, gazebo and tennis courts to remain on the property.
The three-judge panel held that the commission had abused its discretion, mostly due to rampant procedural delays.
Deputy Attorney General Katherine Hunt called the lags "unfortunate," according to the court record.
The commission does not agree with the ruling, but decided at its last meeting Nov. 14 not to appeal it, spokesman Paul Leakan said.
"The commission tried to work with the applicant over many years to resolve it. We do not feel that the record the court relied on accurately reflected all of (our) actions over the years," Leakan said.
Leakan declined further comment other than to say the case's two-decade timeline is unprecedented.
It all started in 1991, five years after state, county and local officials gave Pappas permission to build, according to the written decision.
"I did everything by the book because I didn't want something like this to happen," he said.
While he was building the shed, the commission re-examined his property, citing an anonymous tip that he was not in compliance. He was asked to tear down the tennis courts, gazebo and shed and to recreate wetlands to compensate for those the commission said were underneath the structures, according to the decision.
Pappas refused. As other agencies such as the Atlantic County Health Department and the township building department revoked previously issued permits, environmental consultants worked to show Pappas had not harmed the site, nor built within wetlands boundaries, according to the decision.
Pappas submitted those reports in 1993 and heard nothing until the commission sued him in 2001.
The other delay that struck the judges as inexcusable was a three-year span between Pappas filing for a waiver from mitigation in 2003 and the commission's denial in 2006, according to the decision.
"If there was such a significant incursion on the wetlands ... (the Pinelands Commission) could have and should have acted swiftly to compel petition to correct it," it continued, describing the commission's actions as cavalier and disingenuous.
The decision also noted that, unlike other agencies, the commission does not adhere to rules that demand decisions in 90 days, unless that entity wants to cede favor to the other party.
Pappas hopes his case sets precedent for people who might not have the resources to engage in a battle such as his.
"If the government says you can't live in your house, you're scared skinny," he said. "Thank God my business did well and I can afford it."
Pappas, 50, runs Stoneworld Landscape Center, a Egg Harbor Township-based paving company. He said he owns hundreds of acres of property throughout Atlantic County, including a house under construction in Linwood and another in Absecon. Pappas grew up in the Absecon house there and still shares it with his mother and son, a junior business major at Richard Stockton College.
Pappas estimated he has paid $500,000 total for legal fees. He went through eight lawyers before retaining Stuart Lieberman, of Lieberman and Blecher, who won the case.
He estimated he's also paid more than $350,000 for lawyers, environmental research and property taxes, plus fines and fees for failing to pay taxes in the certificate of occupancy he contended the township withheld.
Why not just bulldoze the ancillary buildings instead of paying so many bills?
"What's right is right," he said. "If I've done something wrong, prosecute me ... or sit me down and tell me what's wrong so I can fix it. But I didn't do anything."
Now Pappas has mixed feelings about the serene plot. Leaves have collected inside a corral intended to enclose a vegetable garden and the wooden wishing well by the inground pool has started to rot.
"It's like heaven out here to me," Pappas said. "But if I don't live here, I don't care anymore. I used to, but I don't now - I'm so disgusted by the whole thing."
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