At Monday night’s planning board meeting, Herold Law Attorney Rob Simon brought up a possible conflict of interest with Township Planner Ed Snieckus for advising both the township council and the planning board on the proposed Waterview development.
“We feel very strongly that ethically, there is no doubt a conflict of interest,” said Simon.
Last month the Parsippany-Troy Hills Township Council approved a controversial rezoning ordinance on first reading. The ordinance, which rezones a tract of land in the Waterview complex was passed on first reading in a 3-1 vote which moved the issue to the Planning Board for a decision on whether or not it is consistent with the town's master plan. It would then come back before the council for a presentation by the township planner on traffic issues and fiscal impact, as well as comments from the public and a final vote.
The rezoning changes the area to a mixed retail, commercial and residential overlay district, which paves the way for a potential development of a 26.6-acre tract in what is currently a part of the 132-acre property known as the Waterview Corporate Park. A developer, RDR, plans to build a Whole Foods Market and townhouse community on the tract.
Simon represents Health, Safety & Welfare, Inc. Don't Rezone Waterview ("CHSW"), a neighborhood organization that has recently expressed concern over the Waterview complex, according to a letter he wrote to Township Attorney John Inglesino at the end of June.
At Monday night's meeting, Board Attorney Michael Cresitello recommended that the planning board not accept public comments regarding the Waterview complex.
“I had spoken to (Board Attorney) Michael Cresitello … and my understanding is that that portion of this public meeting will not be open to the public in the form of a public hearing,” said Simon.
“That would be my recommendation to the board. It is not required statutorily,” said Cresitello. “The appropriate time for the public to comment on the ordinance would be at the time of adoption by the governing body.”
Simon “respectfully ask(ed) to be heard at this point … just for purposes of raising a procedural issue.”
Cresitello agreed, asking that Simon limit his topic to procedure.
Simon said that he “raised certain procedural and jurisdictional issues” in late 2012 regarding the “ability of this board to actually hear the application. There was no requirement or preference under the municipal land use law, under common law, etc … to even allow that application to go forward. This board rejected those jurisdictional arguments and … ultimately made a recommendation to the governing body to formulate and introduce an ordinance recommended by the developer.”
Simon said that since then, Snieckus “has been helpful with the governing body in drafting and ultimately, this past summer, in introducing that ordinance upon first reading.”
Simon added that Snieckus also issued memos and recommendations to the planning board in 2012 and then sat on the planning board as a board planner when the board recommended that the township draft the ordinance; Sniekus then “participated in the draft of that ordinance and then ultimately the introduction of that ordinance this past summer.”
“It’s our contention that based on all that activity that Mr. Snieckus is not able to wear two hats and draft the ordinance and issue a recommendation for or against to this planning board as to consistency to the master plan,” said Simon, adding that this conflict of interest offers an “appearance of impropriety” and that “if it turns out down the road … that I am correct to any of these procedural jurisdictional arguments, that any action that is taken by this planning board … could ultimately become (null).
He wanted to raise this issue now to “give fair warning to the planning board and to be upfront … We would ask respectfully for consideration be given so not to deflect from proper municipal processes.”
Simon offered the “simple” solution of the planning board getting “its own independent professional planner to provide advice and counsel and answer questions in regards to this Master Plan consistency.”
“I think that’s a question of law you can raise at a future point in time,” said Cresitello. “It’s not something I’m going to direct this board to pause or not go forward tonight based on these procedural issues … Tonight’s not the night to debate this.”
Councilman Michael dePierro added that he doesn’t believe there is a conflict of interest.
“I just want to make the observation that Mr. Snieckus is doing his job as requested by the planning board and is also doing his job as requested by the township council and the mayor. I don’t see any conflict when he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing,” said dePierro.
Check back with Patch later for more on this planning board meeting.