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Jackson council settles litigation; Jackson Trails project may proceed

JACKSON – The members of the Jackson Township Council have settled a lawsuit which alleged improprieties in a municipal board’s rejection of a residential development application known as Jackson Trails.

Aspects of the litigation focused on the potential move of Orthodox Jews into Jackson.

The settlement was announced during the March 8 meeting of the Township Council.

Council President Martin Flemming, Vice President Andrew Kern, Councilman Alex Sauickie, Councilman Stephen Chisholm and Councilman Nino Borrelli passed a resolution that ended the 2-year-old legal action.

According to the agreement, the development of Jackson Trails will proceed and the township’s insurance will pay a $700,000 settlement. The plaintiffs were Jackson Trails, LLC, Jackson 222324, LLC, Jackson Farms, LLC, Jackson Run, LLC, Jackson Walk, LLC, and Lakewood Investments, LLC.

Attorney Sieglinde K. Rath represented the plaintiffs. Rath did not return a message left by the Tri-Town News seeking comment on the settlement.

In 2019, representatives of Jackson Trails sought approval from the Planning Board to construct 459 housing units and a house of worship on a 130-acre property near Jackson’s border with Manchester Township. Following the presentation of testimony and a public hearing, board members voted to deny the application.

Jackson Trails LLC, named Jackson and the Jackson Planning Board as defendants in a legal action filed Feb. 3, 2020.

The plaintiffs asserted the board denied the Jackson Trails application “bowing to severe anti-Semitic pressure from local residents and fears that Orthodox Jews may purchase homes and reside in the development, and due to the inclusion in the development of a house of worship that may be used as a synagogue for Orthodox Jews.”

The lawsuit asserted the board’s denial of the application was “part of a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the township.”

In comments regarding the settlement, Township Attorney Gregory McGuckin said, “the Jackson Trails matter, had it just been a land use case, had it just been a denial of an application, would have been resolved some time ago and it would have been resolved in a much more favorable manner to Jackson.

“Unfortunately, because of comments that were made during that (Planning Board) hearing and comments that were made from the public, it provided the developer the opportunity to use those comments to take a simple land use case and turn it into a religious discrimination matter which then went to federal court,” McGuckin said.

He said the move from a state court to a federal court changed the laws that applied in the matter, the remedies that were available and the damages that could be sought by the plaintiffs.

“I would simply indicate that as we go forward in this town, that those kinds of comments do not help the township. It only ends up hurting the township because the comments that are made from members of the public, who have the right to feel however they want, when they make those comments at a public hearing the entire town is painted with that brush, and when it comes to a federal judge, when he hears those comments, it is assumed those comments reflect the will of the people of the township,” McGuckin said.

The attorney added that the reality of the situation “has placed the township in very difficult positions in this case and others; one of which we have been able to resolve at a high cost and a difficult process.”

Attorney Brent Pohlman represented Jackson in the matter and said, “The reason this litigation arose and the reason it dragged on for as long as it did, and the reason we are settling in the cost we are, are threefold. The first is there are statutes available to property owners and the plaintiffs that enable them to weaponize decisions made by governing bodies regardless of the intent.”

Pohlman said the federal statute switches the burden and places significant obligations on public entities that have been alleged to have violated the law, and it compelled the defendants to demonstrate their actions was based on appropriate criteria and legal principles.

“Additionally in this litigation, we were faced with (affordable housing) claims. While (affordable housing) has a noble intent, it is often weaponized and used by developers who believe they were improperly denied relief,” Pohlman said.

The third reason behind the litigation were the comments that were made by members of the public during the Planning Board hearings when Jackson Trails was being considered.

“(Those were) comments that contaminated our record. (Those were) comments that were not made by any elected or appointed official, but nonetheless, pursuant to our federal courts’ decisions, when there are comments that are made before a public body on the record at a quasi-judicial proceeding, those comments are considered to have the opportunity to have influenced those appointed or elected officials who made the decisions,” Pohlman said.

The attorney explained that public entities “are behind the eight ball from the outset of these litigations.”

“So while members of our Planning Board and members of our governing body may have never said a single word, a single inappropriate word, they are forced to defend against an allegation that comments made by others contaminated their decision-making process and that creates a very difficult burden for public entities to overcome in these litigations,” Pohlman said.

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