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August 9, 2007

Bank files suit in Forney House battle

JESSICA SMITH
Staff Writer

Citizens group fighting bank plan is target of complaint

Valley National Bank has filed a counterclaim against a citizens group working to save the Forney House in Milltown.

The lawsuit comes in response to the group's legal action seeking to stop the bank from razing the 150-year-old North Main Street building and replacing it with a bank branch.

"This is nothing more than a rather transparent attempt to harass and intimidate these people who are only doing what people in New Jersey do every day," the citizens group's attorney, Stuart Lieberman said.

"We're going to ask the court to dismiss the counterclaim, because it's absolutely ridiculous. Our view is that this is unquestionably a SLAPP suit."

SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, suits involve corporations or developers bringing litigation against citizens groups who take an oppositional stance to their plans, Lieberman said, adding that New Jersey courts frown upon these types of lawsuits.

"Our courts are rather clear that this can't be tolerated," Lieberman said. "It doesn't concern us at all."

The citizens group, calling itself the John C. Evans Project, incorporated itself as a nonprofit in May and has been working to halt Valley National Bank's efforts to demolish the Forney House. The group filed a complaint May 26 to appeal the Milltown Zoning Board of Adjustment's April 4 decision that granted site plan approval and variances for the bank branch.

Lieberman received documents announcing the counterclaim July 5 in state Superior Court. He said the next step is for briefs to be exchanged.

"It's somewhat counterproductive for them, because it's going to extend and delay the legal process," said Michael Shakarjian, a trustee of the citizens' group. "We don't consider it to be particularly wise from a public relations point of view."

Kathy Heilman, another trustee, agreed.

"The bank is jeopardizing so many potential customers," Heilman said. "People in Milltown are upset. They're saying, 'What is this bank really about?' They're just trying to get money out of a group that has no money."

With the counterclaim, the John C. Evans Project is in great financial need, Heilman said. Though the group has had a handful of significant donors, the additional litigation is draining its scant resources.

Fredric Azrak, the attorney for Valley National, has not returned several calls seeking comment.

Valley National's suit claims that the John C. Evans Project has interfered with its economic advantage, as well as with its rights under the sale contract the bank has with the current owner, Dr. Bhudev Sharma.

"The allegations they're making require a sinister ugliness, a malice on the part of the citizens," Lieberman said. "The courts don't respond well to these types of insulting practices."

Residents voiced their opposition to the application during several months of testimony before the zoning board last year. Some felt they were not given ample opportunity to state their case, and that the process was not executed properly.

Though Valley National received approval from the zoning board, it still must obtain the go-ahead from the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) before it can move forward with the plans.

Residents and others involved in the effort to save the historic structure have been in contact with the OCC, stating their wishes and concerns.

"They don't get back to any of us at all," Heilman said.

During testimony before the zoning board, Valley National's representatives stated that the building could not be rehabilitated for use as a bank, not only because of the costs involved, but also because it would not be able to meet OCC regulations for a bank.

Lieberman said Valley National should try to obtain waivers from the OCC for adaptive reuse of the house.

"Maybe the old house doesn't have a floor plan that's immediately amenable to this, [but] I think it would be a tremendous selling feature, and I think the bank is remiss in letting this ... opportunity go," Lieberman said.

The OCC is getting ready to begin its Section 106 review process, Lieberman said. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the possible impacts of their projects on historic places. Lieberman said he thinks organizations and individuals in the community should be included in the process.

"These agencies that are supposed to safeguard these [historic] treasures need to understand how important this job is," Lieberman said. "When you bulldoze our past, you bulldoze everything that brought us to where we are today, and you lose what makes us who we are."

At least 250 residents share Lieberman's sentiments, according to a petition that is expected to be turned over to borough officials. Heilman said the petition has nothing to do with the bank, and instead focuses on the residents' opposition to the Forney House demolition.

"This is not a small handful of people," Heilman said. "Nobody wants the house torn down."

Lieberman echoed Heilman's statements.

"This is a clear expression of the widespread, and almost unanimous, community support for preservation of this important structure in the community," Lieberman said. "The bank needs to understand that if they're intent on building this, they are going to meet with immense public resistance."

The house was built in the mid- to late-1800s by the Evans family, whose son served as Milltown's first mayor. It was converted into a medical facility by John C. Evans and operated as such from 1907 until the 1970s. During many of those years it was run by Dr. Norman C. Forney Sr., the town's first surgeon.

For more information on the John C. Evans Project, e-mail the group at [email protected]