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Potential Conflict Delays Detox Denial Reconsideration

The Lawrence Township Zoning Board’s court-ordered reconsideration of its denial of a use variance for a controversial drug and alcohol detox center is now delayed while the board waits for a judge to decide if a board member has a conflict of interest.

Back in June, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson its 2011 denial of a use variance that would have allowed an inpatient drug and alcohol detoxification center to open in a building on Federal City Road.

Last Wednesday (Aug. 15) members of the zoning board meet in closed session with attorney George Dougherty, who has been in the matter, to discuss how to proceed with the remand.

When the board emerged from the closed session, it was revealed that reconsideration of the use variance was going to be delayed while the board appealed to Judge Jacobson for guidance concerning a possible conflict of interest involving a board member who, prior to joining the board, offered testimony at one of the hearings about the proposed detox center.

“We had some very, I’ll describe them as good faith, arguments on both sides of the issue as to whether a true conflict, a disqualifying conflict, exists,” Dougherty explained once the public portion of last week’s meeting commenced.

“I want to say for the record that the conflict that we’re talking about has nothing to do with anything to be ashamed of. This has to do simply with the role played by a member who, before he was appointed to this board, served as a citizen witness in good faith, giving testimony at the hearing. In my opinion, that kind of role, while laudable, is inconsistent with later on becoming a member of the quasi-judicial panel to decide the issue,” Dougherty continued.

“My recommendation to the board was the first order of business is to have a judge review the applicable standards for deciding the qualifications to sit,” he said. “And once that’s done, and not until that’s done, can this panel then be properly composed, and then the panel can go forward…”

Dougherty said he was optimistic Jacobson would expedite the board’s request for an opinion on the potential conflict and that it could be a “matter of weeks, not months” to hear back from the judge.

It was on June 7 that Jacobson ruled that the zoning board was wrong when, by a 4-2 vote, it decided the proposed detox center was “not inherently beneficial” under state law and, in turn, denied the variance application

John Simone, the developer who owns the property, and Sunrise Detox, the Florida-based company that would run the 38-bed inpatient facility, last year filed a lawsuit to appeal the zoning board’s decision.

The board’s rejection of the variance application came after nine exhausting and often-heated zoning board hearings, dating back to November 2010, that featured testimony from supporters of the plan – who claimed that a need exists in the area for detoxification services – and those vehemently opposed to the idea, including nearby residents who said they feared for their safety and believed such a facility should not be located so close to residential neighborhoods.

The building in question at 100 Federal City Rd. sits at the entrance to the Traditions at Federal Point adult community and directly behind the homes in another development that includes Frederick Court and Karena Lane. In addition to their concerns about safety, neighbors objected to the increased traffic and noise – particularly from delivery trucks – that would come from the facility, which would include fulltime kitchen and laundry facilities.

Zoning Board Chairman Stephen Brame, after last week’s meeting was over, explained that it was Dougherty, acting in his role as advisor to the board, who voiced concerns that allowing the potentially-conflicted board member to take part in the variance reconsideration could later lead to allegations that the process was tainted.

“There’s been so much time and effort involved in the matter, the majority of the board felt that the thing to do was to ask for a determination from the court as to whether in fact there was a conflict before we proceed further,” Brame said.

“The board doesn’t have the authority to remove [a member] or recommend recusal,” he said. “So the board has simply referred the matter to counsel to bring the matter before the court to ask for an opinion as to whether there should be a recusal by the member of the board.”

Until the judge makes her decision, “everything is held in abeyance,” he said. “We cannot proceed until that matter is resolved.”

Once the issue of the potential conflict is resolved, Brame said, “the next step will be to constitute the board with the appropriate number of board members to make a final determination as to the remanded portion of the case.”

He said Dougherty will, at that time, explain “how to constitute a full complement of the board according to the land use laws.”

If current zoning board members are unavailable due to recusal or some other reason, it is possible that a member of the township’s Planning Board will be called upon to help decide the matter.

But that brings with it another delay, as such a newcomer to the zoning board would first have to review the previous 40 hours worth of detox center testimony to “get up to speed” in the case, Brame said.

 

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