Chatham Township Residents Accuse Mayor of Conflict of Interest in Market Garden Debate; Township Attorney Says No Such Conflict Exists
Monday, September 17, 2012 • 6:45am
CHATHAM TOWNSHIP, NJ – The much-debated market garden ordinance in Chatham has taken yet another turn as some residents are questioning its zoning and whether Mayor Nicole Hagner should have been involved at all.
This time, the questions are focused on Rolling Knolls, the former landfill that has been declared a Superfund site. The landfill, in the Green Village section of the township, operated as a municipal garbage dump from the early 1930s through December 1968. It is a few miles away from the headquarters of Novartis, one of those the EPA has deemed responsible for the site contamination.
According to the EPA, the Superfund Enforcement program gets Superfund sites cleaned up by finding the companies or people responsible for contamination at a site, and negotiating with them to do the cleanup themselves, or to pay to have it done by another party (the EPA, the state, etc.)
With Novartis listed as one of the responsible parties, the drug company would be expected to shoulder part of the cost to remediate the site, which is zoned for residential use.
The questions began to arise when the Chatham Township Committee began considering a redevelopment plan. Early on, the discussion centered around changing the zoning for the whole area, including the Rolling Knolls site, to allow for market gardens. Later, the site was taken out of the proposal.
When the market garden ordinance was approved in late April of this year, a group of residents who had long been vocal in their opposition filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop it. At that time, they raised the question about whether the ordinance would benefit Novartis. Hagner works in clinical trials at Novartis, which the angry residents claim makes any efforts at redevelopment of the site a conflict of interest for the mayor.
In the lawsuit, the residents say they believe the ordinance could lower clean-up costs for Novartis.
“I believe that the mayor’s administration fully intended this ordinance to benefit her personal financial interests, the business needs of her supporters and was an attempt to reduce the clean-up costs to her employer, Novartis Pharmaceuticals,” said Erich Templin, one of several residents who filed the lawsuit and who is currently running for a seat on the Township Committee. “The only reason that the township has been forced to pull back from this irresponsible stance is through the efforts of our citizens group making the township, our Mayor and Novartis accountable for their actions.”
However, Township Attorney Carl Woodward said that is not the case. Woodward told The Alternative Press that Novartis will not benefit, because the ordinance was specifically designed to call for conditional use.
“Novartis does not and will not benefit from the zoning amendment that the township has adopted,” Woodward said in a telephone interview Friday morning. “The initial ordinance applies to all the residential zones in town, including Rolling Knolls, but we recognized just prior to the time we adopted ordinance, that we didn’t want that. “
At the April 28 meeting where the ordinance was adopted, the committee included an amendment to delete Rolling Knolls.
“It’s a Superfund site,” Woodward said. “It’s inappropriate to be used for gardening purposes.”
At the time, there was an amendment to the amendment because of a typo, but all have now been adopted, Woodward said, and Rolling Knolls will never – at least under the current ordinance – be zoned as anything but residential.
“Just because there’s a conditional use, the underlying zoning has only been residential,” he said. “The township has never intended to change that. In my view, there is no conflict. Novartis would never benefit from this, and the EPA and the DEP have confirmed that.”
He added his defense of the mayor, who did not return messages from The Alternative Press seeking comment.
“With respect to any discussions regarding remediation of the Superfund site, Mayor Hagner has always recused herself,” Woodward said. “She has been very concerned that her employment and her public position do not conflict.”
In their lawsuit, the residents argue that she should not have been present at all when the ordinance was discussed. Their complaint also alleges that the whole proceeding was not done in good faith, because Rolling Knolls was not initially disclosed in the proposed zoning changes.
Templin and the other residents have long argued that market garden usage would increase traffic and possibly damage their property values. They also have claimed that illegal dumping has been done on the site and that the township has not done enough to stop it.
The pre-trial conference on the lawsuit, set for this week, has been moved to October.