HOWELL – The members of the Howell Township Council have adopted two ordinances that will allow them to purchase and preserve a property as open space or to use the parcel for recreational purposes, and will put a 3-year-old lawsuit to rest.
The legal issue involved Congregation Kollel Inc., which filed a lawsuit against Howell in 2018 in connection with a rejected development application that sought to establish a religious school at 344 Ford Road.
Congregation Kollel proposed the construction of a 17,240-square-foot building with classrooms, a 19,000-square-foot dormitory and seven homes at the Ford Road location.
A settlement with Congregation Kollel was authorized by the council on Nov. 30. That evening, two ordinances related to the settlement were introduced. Both ordinances were adopted by the council on Dec. 14.
The first ordinance adopted by the council authorizes the acquisition of land associated with the Congregation Kollel settlement.
The second ordinance adopted by the council appropriates $8.1 million and authorizes the issuance of $7.62 million in bonds and notes to help finance the land acquisition.
The agreement contains provisions for the payment of a settlement amount of $675,000 to conclude the lawsuit ($125,000 to be paid by Howell and $550,000 to be paid by Howell’s insurers); and an acquisition price of $8 million for the purchase of 20 acres on Ford Road, according to a resolution council members passed.
As part of the settlement, Congregation Kollel recognized Howell’s good faith efforts and will ask the U.S. Department of Justice to end an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism. The plaintiff also agreed to withdraw any challenge to Howell’s zoning ordinances.
Councilwoman Pamela Richmond commented on the land acquisition ordinance prior to its adoption and said, “Without a doubt, I 100% support open space and open space preservation. I oppose unnecessary high-density residential development and I want to maintain Howell’s unique character and quality of life.
“While it is good news we are preserving land under this proposed ordinance, how we got here and the extraordinary costs we are incurring were avoidable,” the councilwoman said.
Richmond said the acquisition of the Ford Road property represents a black mark on Howell.
“As far back as 2015, various groups strongly opposed potential development on this land, which is their right. However, for select groups their protests and opposition took a reckless, ugly and irresponsible turn when they began to make veiled, indirect and at times very direct anti-Semitic comments.
“I am all for free speech and I completely support our First Amendment right. In fact, I am very opinionated on social media and I express my own views and beliefs. However, there is a huge difference between free speech and hate speech.
“That creates a dangerous climate in this community. In the case of this property, the way in which certain people behaved was flat out wrong and very disturbing,” Richmond said.
Richmond named Councilman John Bonevich – who was not a member of the Township Council at the time – as one person who made what she said were irresponsible comments on social media.
Asked for a response to Richmond’s comment, Bonevich told the Tri-Town News, “I respect Councilwoman Richmond as a fellow council member, but her comments are just not factual and are made out of political gamesmanship like is noted in (another) lawsuit about her. This (Congregation Kollel issue) started back in 2015 before our current council members were elected. She needs to start putting politics aside and start focusing on the issues.”
During the public hearing that preceded the council’s vote to adopt the second ordinance, resident Marc Parisi said he hoped everyone could agree the settlement with Congregation Kollel was “not desirable by anyone’s imagination.”
“But we are here, and I think fanning the flames that caused this settlement is a disservice to not only the Jewish members of this community, but to our Jewish neighbors in Lakewood.
“In light of the fact we are going to have to co-exist, live together and learn to respect each other’s cultures and communities, if we are going to politicize this settlement, I think it is only going to hurt people of that faith.
“I would just call upon everybody to try to refrain from making the statements and playing the political blame game and pointing fingers,” Parisi said.
“The defendants (in the action filed by Congregation Kollel) were the township and the zoning board. The defendants were not a Facebook group … (Congregation Kollel) did not bring an action against private citizens who may be sitting on council tonight.
“They brought an action against the zoning board for the decisions that were made by the zoning board, the actions of the zoning board professionals and comments that were made by (members of) the public at zoning board hearings in December 2015 and February 2016. That (was) the basis of the action,” Parisi said.
He said comments that were made on social media were not factually relevant to the underlying land use issues.
“And the fact that the Township Council changed the ordinance in the middle of the appeal that was pending before the zoning board at that time; literally, (Congregation Kollel) came to the zoning board in December 2015 and a month later the council was changing the ordinance to remove educational facilities from that ARE-2 zone; the public needs to know that and that upset a lot of people in the community,” Parisi said.
“It is quite outrageous to listen to our elected officials try and point fingers and play the blame game when none of you were sitting on the council back in 2015 and 2016, and here we are,” Parisi said.