By Neil Schulman
Oceanport — Borough officials say that FMERA forced them to sign a lease that they didn’t like, and thought they had modified, under threat that the Oceanport Police Department could be evicted from its new location. One Borough Council member said the authority metaphorically “put a gun to our head” to force the signing.
That’s only one thing that the members of the governing body are unhappy with at Fort Monmouth, activity overseen by the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority. At the Feb. 5 Borough Council meeting, they also spoke about how an Ebola quarantine center was permitted without local input – and possibly against FMERA’s own bylaws – as well as concerns over the ground water quality at the closed Army base.
While the Oceanport Police Department has been housed in the former Fort Monmouth Fire Department since October, the lease was only recently signed.
The former police headquarters on Monmouth Boulevard was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.
But at the Feb. 5 Borough Council meeting, Councilman Joseph Irace said that the lease “terms were different than what we discussed six, seven months ago” when choosing the location for a temporary headquarters.
Borough Attorney Scott Arnette said that FMERA, in charge of leasing and selling the fort properties from the Army, originally presented the borough with a standard sub-lease for the property.
Because of the unusual circumstances of why Oceanport was getting the land, there were certain parts of it, dealing with some environmental issues, that “did not seem to be beneficial to the borough.”
Arnette said that he worked with attorneys from the state and “fashioned a workaround” Oceanport was happy with.
However, FMERA recently informed Oceanport it would not accept those modifications, and insisted the borough sign the original lease.
“Why the rush to sign the lease if there was information we didn’t like?” Irace asked.
“We were notified we were going to be evicted,” Borough Administrator John Bennett responded.
Irace was incredulous.
“They were going to evict our police department?” he asked, noting that it was there because of a major disaster.
Later in the meeting he said he was “extremely disappointed” in FMERA’s actions, saying it was untrustworthy “for another party to take what I deem to be a gun to our head action.”
While Mayor Michael Mahon is a member of the FMERA board of directors, he said that it only votes on big picture details. like whether to approve a project. The specifics, such as terms of the lease, are left to the FMERA staff.
Council also spent some time at the meeting discussing the recent news that buildings in Fort Monmouth could be used as a backup facility to house people who had been exposed to Ebola in Africa and were travelling through New Jersey.
The New Jersey Department of Human Services came to an agreement to use the Fort as a secondary location – the main one is a former hospital in Lebanon, NJ – without consulting the FMERA board.
Mahon said he had issued a joint statement, with the other two area mayors and county Freeholder on the board, saying they were concerned that the decision had been made without their input, and worried that it could impact the long term development.
Local legislators are now also investigating the situation, he said.
“The main concern is about the ability of FMERA to enter into an agreement … without that item being approved by the board of directors,” Mahon said.
Mahon said he had been told that the move was “imposed” on FMERA by the state.
Council President Robert Lynch said he had examined FMERA’s bylaws, which seemed to say any project must be approved by the board.
“It’s pretty specific what FMERA can do, the EDA (Economic Development Authority, the state agency which runs FMERA) can do, and what they can’t do,” Lynch said.
At the last couple of council meetings, Councilwoman Ellynn Kahle has voiced concerns that recent tests have revealed numerous contaminants in the groundwater at the Fort.
She has reported that many contaminants are in concentrations much higher than what the recommended amounts are, often ten or a hundred times as much, if not more. PCBs, which should be less than one part per million, tested at 1,800 parts per million.
Kahle said a lot of the sampling spots are “very near our waterways,” and could affect anyone who has a well.
Exposure can be dangerous. Many of the chemicals are known carcinogens or toxins, causing developmental delays in fetuses, liver damage, and other significant problems.
“Some of these chemicals, they can readily vaporize and be inhaled,” she said.
Kahle said it was important to make sure that the local sewerage authorities knew about these findings.
Mayor Mahon said that following these reports, it typically takes up to six months for a formal report of how the Army plans to remedy the situations.
In related news, Bennett announced that the Oceanport Department of Public Works would be renovating the existing garage, and setting up a temporary trailer by the Port Au Peck Firehouse to house the workers while repairs are made to the facility.
Oceanport had been considering leasing space on Fort Monmouth for a new DPW, but is “no longer willing to pursue” that, Bennett said.