Lawsuit against Monmouth Mall expansion dismissed

By Coleen Burnett

Eatontown — Late last week, after The Link had gone to press, State Superior Court Judge Lisa Thornton dismissed one of the two lawsuits pending against the Monmouth Mall.

Borough residents Evelyn Guerra, Sara Breslow, Judith Bretzger and Barbara Denegar filed suit against the plan in September of 2016, arguing the change to the zoning of the mall was not performed legally.

The blueprint for the changes calls for 700 apartments with rents that could top out at $3,000 a month. (Eighty-eight of the rental units will be reserved for affordable housing.) The revamp is conceived as a “live, work, and play” concept that essentially combines shopping, eating and entertainment all under one roof.

In her decision, Judge Lisa P. Thornton said that “after hearing the testimony, it is apparent that plaintiffs’ testimony was affected by their bias against the ordinance.”

The group claimed the council violated the Open Public Meetings Act when it adopted the plan. The four said the nearby Eatontown firehouse — which was opened up to accommodate the overflow crowds — was “sweltering” and the video feed was of poor quality, preventing public feedback.

Thornton disagreed. She said the Eatontown Council didn’t need to “guarantee every citizen be seated.”

She continued, saying the council is only obligated to “set aside a portion of every meeting” for public participation, the length of which may be determined at their discretion.

Thornton also said the Mall provides a significant tax ratable for the borough, saying “the viability of the mall is a priority for the borough and its taxpayers.”

All this made Mayor Dennis Connelly a happy man. In an interview with The Link shortly after the verdict was rendered, the mayor said that the ruling is a victory for all the residents who are not afraid of change — and make no mistake, the Mall must change. He also said that all sorts of inaccurate statements were being put out on the internet.

“It’s a vindication of sorts,” he said. “You can write anything on social media.”

Despite the long wait for the decision, Connelly never wavered in his belief that the borough did the right thing to make sure residents got the proper information on the project.

“I felt confident we would win,” he said. “But until the verdict was in, I wasn’t going to open my mouth.”

The borough is not of the woods yet. There is still a pending lawsuit against the Planning Board filed Sept. 27 of this year.

More than 60 borough residents are the plaintiffs in the suit. They argue that the hearing was improper for several reasons, including that this should have been an issue for the Zoning Board of Adjustment instead of Planning, and claiming the mayor, board attorney and several members had a conflict of interest and should not have voted.

Connelly mentioned they had heard similar complaints earlier. “Since the argument wasn’t valid with the Council, I’m not so sure where their argument will go from here.”

Connelly is just happy that the developers can move forward on the project.

“Now the ordinance {is} valid — the Mall can start building and they can move forward with the Developer’s Agreement with the council,” he said.

The mayor said the wait “was way too long for a two-day trial, but I’m elated that the decision went to the borough, and I just hope we can move forward and cut out any further delays.”