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Friday, December 23, 2005

Residents sue to reverse project approval

BY MATTHEW J. DOWLING
Star-Ledger Staff

Franklin Twp. council accused of illegal vote on big development

A group of Franklin Township residents filed suit against the municipality and a prominent builder seeking to overturn township council approval for a development that could include up to 864 homes and a retail shopping district.

The housing portion of the project along Bennetts Lane and Route 27 was excluded from the master plan approved by the township planning board on Dec. 7, according to the lawsuit filed this week by Franklin Residents Against Improper Development, or FRAID.

But the township council voted to reinstate the development before it adopted the master plan, a move the citizens group says violates state laws.

"Only a planning board may approve a municipal master plan and any of its elements," the lawsuit filed by Princeton-based attorney Stuart Lieberman states. "The governing body knew that what it was doing was without authority, and yet due to apparent and severe political pressure ... this governing body did the wrong thing by ignoring the law."

Township Attorney Louis Rainone could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

The lawsuit also lists the developer, M&M at Bennetts Lane, as a defendant. The company is run by Middlesex County developer Jack Morris, whose political connections have linked his name to a recent federal corruption probe into the business dealings of former state Sen. John Lynch.

The project between Veronica Avenue and Bennetts Lane would include 158 affordable units under state Council on Affordable Housing guidelines, in addition to 305,713 square feet of retail space anchored by a Home Depot.

FRAID claims the site is unsuitable for development because of sensitive streams, wetlands and habitat for the endangered red-shouldered hawk. Most of those involved with the citizens group live within 200 feet of the proposed project.

"The property in question is one of the least environmentally suited properties that one can locate for this kind of intensive project," states the lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Somerville. Traffic on congested Route 27 also remains a concern for the group.

The inclusion of the project in the township's master plan came after finger-pointing among planning board members who claimed behind-the-scenes bullying by Councilwoman Ellen Ritchie. She serves on the planning board and township council.

Planning Board member Michael Orsini claimed Ritchie threatened his political career if he voted against including the development, an account confirmed by board member Joe Danielsen.

Ritchie publicly denied the allegation as "outrageous" and "obvious lies." She refused to recuse herself from votes concerning the development, despite objections by a FRAID attorney at both meetings earlier this month.

"The fact that she has remained involved has poisoned the entire process to the point that the governing body's (approval) resolution must be invalid," the lawsuit states.

Matthew J. Dowling covers Somerset County courts.
He may be reached at [email protected] or (908) 429-9929.