Potential conflicts abound on Tuckahoe Road rezoning

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MARMORA – As many as four members on the five-member Upper Township Committee could have conflicts of interest that would force them to step down during a hearing on rezoning Tuckahoe Road in Marmora.

Ralph Holt, who owns Ralph Bagel’s there, spoke at township committee’s Monday, Oct. 22 meeting, asking committee members to rezone Tuckahoe Road, where his business is located. In September, the planning board voted unanimously against a similar proposal, which would have recommended changing zoning from residential to commercial for four lots there.
At that meeting, five members of the 11-member planning board stepped down because of potential conflicts of interest related to local politics.
Holt was elected to the Upper Township Republican County Committee in the June primary. Planning board members Committeeman Tony Inserra, Janet McCrosson, James Kelly and Daniel Bready also serve on the local Republican county committee. Mayor Richard Palombo is Upper Township Republican leader.
Inserra and Holt ran for and won two seats on the Upper Township Republican County Committee against opposition from the regular Republican organization, which backed McCrosson, Kelly and Bready in their primaries. Palombo is also running for re-election in November. Inserra is backing an opposing candidate.
Those same potential conflicts would require Palombo and Inserra to step down from any Upper Township Committee hearing on rezoning Tuckahoe Road, said solicitor Dan Young. Young said Committeeman Ed Barr’s position as an alternate leader of local Republicans may also require him to step down during a hearing.
Adding to that, Deputy Mayor Curtis Corson Jr. said Monday that Inserra approached him earlier in the year and discussed Holt’s request to rezone Tuckahoe Road, even though he had stepped down from planning board hearings because of a potential conflict of interest in the matter.
“If I vote in favor of rezoning, someone might have grounds for appeal because of undue influence by Mr. Inserra,” said Corson.
Young said the discussion occurred early in Inserra’s term and he talked to Corson and Inserra about the matter afterword. He said he advised Corson to address the situation publicly if Holt’s request for rezoning ever came before township committee.
That would leave only Committeeman Jay Newman able to sit for the hearing, which is not enough for a quorum.
“There is a body of law called the ‘Rule of Necessity’ which allows officials with conflicts of interest to sit if there is nobody else to hear it,” said Young.
Palombo asked Young to look into the potential conflicts of interest and report back to township committee.
For his part, Palombo said he wasn’t sure there was a conflict of interest on his part.
“I looked at it and I stepped down (at the planning board) because I was advised to, but I wasn’t sure that I should,” he said.
Inserra said he stepped down from the planning board hearing because he was advised to.
The planning board has voted against rezoning Tuckahoe Road or a portion of it three times.
Last year, the planning board had considered a request to rezone the entire block as part of a Master Plan reexamination and decided against it. In February, Holt approached Upper Township Committee and requested a change in the zone. Township committee asked the planning board to study rezoning just four lots fronting Tuckahoe Road west of Stagecoach Road.
In June, the planning board unanimously voted against the change. Holt asked for a rehearing, claiming planning board members that also serve on the Upper Township Republican County Committee should have stepped down for the vote. The rehearing was held in June and the proposed zoning change was voted down again.
Holt is seeking the zoning change because his business is currently non-conforming, as it sits in a residential zone. Any significant change to the building or its operation requires a variance from the zoning board, which have not been approved.
Young said that if enough township committee members can sit for a hearing, it would still be rare for a governing body to overrule its planning board.
“They have to act reasonably and not arbitrarily,” said Young. “In land use matters, that usually means you act on your professionals’ opinions. Generally, municipal bodies follow their planning board. They are supposed to be the experts.”
Young said Holt could appeal the planning board’s decision in court.

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