NORTH BRUNSWICK – The owners of the Garden State Farmer’s Market (GSFM) in North Brunswick are in the midst of a legal battle against the owners of the neighboring Aaron Plaza, pleading for an accessway that links their property to Aaron Road to be reopened.
However, counsel for the realty firm said discussions about the easement have been and continue to remain open.
S and HF LLC, which owns the Garden State Farmer’s Market, filed a lawsuit on July 13 against Centone Realty LLC and its members Bruce Centone, Stanley Ferman and Daniel DiStefano alleging that the farmers market at 2549 Route 1 south has been harmed by the unlawful closure of its easements, according to information provided by GSFM.
DiStefano is the current chairman of the North Brunswick Planning Board. According to township records, he has recused himself from any applications related to the properties in question.
In 2013, when construction of the MainStreetNB transit village project began across Route 1, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT) closed the access point from Aaron Road through Aaron Plaza – which is owned by Centone Realty – to the GSFM property due to reconfiguration, according to Hyun “Katie” Sounkr, accountant for GSFM.
“The 2014 easement agreement provided that S and HF LLC would have an access easement on the western side of Centone’s property and a utility and loading easement on the eastern side of Centone’s property. In exchange, the parties agreed that S and HF LLC would pay for all costs in connection with the easement, and provide a dedicated dumpster location and dedicated four parking spaces,” she said.
“We agreed to all [those] conditions because we did not [want to] cause our customers inconvenience and we did not [want to] lose our business. The legal representative for us told us we had no chance of winning the access road back and that the best solution for us was to listen to Centone Realty and agree [with] everything they asked us to do,” she said.
Sounkr said the parties negotiated an agreement in 2014 and recorded it with Centone’s deed, but Rosalind Westlake, counsel for Centone Realty, said the 2014 Mutual Access Agreement is a completely separate document, and not a deed restriction on the deeds for either GSFM or the Centone properties.
Next, in May 2017, Centone filed a lawsuit because “GSFM violated multiple written agreements and refused to abide by its financial obligations,” Westlake said.
S and HF LLC denied receiving any demands for payment before the lawsuit was filed, Sounkr said.
On June 22, 2017, through its counsel at the time, S and HF LLC sent a notice of termination of the easement to Centone that would allow S and HF LLC to terminate the easement 30 days after the written notice.
Centone erected a 6-foot chain link fence around the entire perimeter of its property after securing a fence permit on July 20, 2017, before the Planning Board, according to township records. Sounkr said this was done intentionally to deny not only vehicle access to GSFM from Aaron Road, but also pedestrian traffic.
However, Westlake said, “The market blocked the connector road. They placed a dumpster on the connector road.”
Yet Victoria Jung, vice president of GSFM, said “Our business has suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars from [the defendants’] act of completely enclosing its border with a 6-foot-high chain-link fence. The fence just showed up one day without any notice.”
Jung said the members of Centone “are trying to harm our business with signs on the fence that say we requested the fence, which is completely untrue. I don’t know if this is happening because we are Korean immigrants and do not speak English fluently. I was told a fence needed a site plan and Planning Board approval, but we were not notified of any Planning Board meeting [for the fence].”
In December 2017, Sounkr said, a settlement was reached to remove the fence within “days,” but Centone requested “minor” changes to the easement agreement that would include payment arrangements.
Centone represented it did not need the dumpster space and the four parking spaces on the GSFM property, and needed to discuss only payment arrangements. S and HF LLC agreed the dumpster space and parking spaces would no longer be required, according to Sounkr.
However, Westlake said, “No agreement was reached during these negotiations, but my client has been and continues to be open to discuss options for access.”
Westlake said there was no such agreement in place because the initial agreements were terminated by GSFM months earlier.
“The key issue here is that there are multiple agreements entered into up to 2017, up to June,” she said, “… but there are no agreements in place because they terminated them in June 2017.”
The 2017 lawsuit was dismissed in April. When GSFM demanded Centone open the access easement as agreed, Centone members allegedly refused, according to the statement from GSFM, hence the lawsuit filed in July.
“My client has been willing, and continues to be willing, to discuss access with a minimum 20-year easement,” Westlake said. “We remain open to discussions. We have not had any since last February, other than [Sept. 21]. The bottom line is, the market terminated the easement and the market blocked the access road.”
Sounkr asserted the easement is still in the deed, and GSFM paid more than $20,000 for the settlement decision in December assuming the easement would be opened again, but it has not been.
Among the causes of action, the complaint by GSFM alleges breach of contract, misrepresentation, bad faith, tortious inference with business and defamation. The complaint alleges that Centone Realty members made certain promises to GSFM members, but have “just simply refused to keep their promises,” according to the statement.
“Without the Aaron Road access, vehicles can access GSFM through Route 1, but would need to drive more than 1 mile to traverse south on Route 1 and return to the same point in order to go west on Aaron Road,” Sounkr said. “Pedestrians would need to walk along Aaron Road to Route 1 and walk down Route 1 approximately 350 feet before entering GSFM property.”
“We appealed the decision because this is our lifeblood,” Sonya Lee, manager of the North Brunswick location, said of their 13,500-square-foot market that opened in 1993. “We need the secondary easement.
“We have been getting wrong answers all along. Nobody has been out for our interests,” Lee continued. “Korean Americans are hard working. We care about our business. We don’t care about politics. We care about taking care of our families.
“It just feels like we have been stepped on. We have been here since 1993 when Johnson & Johnson closed, there was no BJ’s … people saw we were here, and we were able to attract people. … What are people going to think about North Brunswick when they can’t get access in and out of a popular business?”
Lee said they are paying legal fees and construction fees, while also allowing four designated parking spaces for the neighboring Aaron Plaza. She said GSFM houses Aaron Plaza’s garbage dumpsters on their property and had to pay $10,000 to construct the enclosures for the dumpsters.
“We have to pay for it. We have to stay open,” Sounkr said.
Lee said the business is losing more than $100,000 per month in sales.
“We have to pay for everything. Not fair,” Lee said. “If you take something away from someone, aren’t you supposed to be compensated? We have not been compensated.”
In addition, the company said it has hired security to patrol the current entrance, since the other two entrances are blocked.
“Because of the issue here with one driveway, we have to hire police officers on the weekends because we can’t have people parking in fire lanes … and we have to keep that road clear so people can get in and out,” Lee said.
Also, as part of a later phase of the transit village construction, there are plans to turn the shoulder of Route 1 into a travel lane in front of the farmer’s market, which Lee said will cut even further into their property line.
“If it becomes three lanes all the way down, it’s not safe to turn in,” she said.
Lee said there was never an issue with the owner of the Exxon gas station, which was previously located where a Chase Bank is being constructed next door to Aaron Plaza and the farmer’s market. The Chase property is owned by the Ferber Company and was approved on Oct. 10, 2017.
“We want what is rightfully ours,” Lee said. “We don’t want anything else. We want our easement that is rightfully ours back. They think all of this will get us to give up, but we need it for our business.”
Westlake said GSFM sued Centone to try to stop construction activity at Aaron Plaza, but that was denied during a hearing on Sept. 21.
Township officials could not comment because this involves private, civil litigation.
Contact Jennifer Amato at email@example.com.