NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–The Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders held an unusually short and possibly unlawful conference meeting on March 2.
At the start of the meeting, they listened to a quick presentation from Wilentz Goldman & Spitzer Chairman John A. Hoffman, Esq. about an open space purchase listed on the consent agenda for approval at the board's next meeting.
The presentation was the only business conducted.
Hoffman is the attorney for the Middlesex County Utilities Authority and the open space counsel for the Middlesex County Improvement Authority (MCIA).
According to an analysis of available records, the property in question is chiefly owned by Barnett E. Hoffman, Esq., a prominent Middlesex County Democrat and retired Middlesex County judge.
It is not known if there is any relation between John A. Hoffman and Barnett E. Hoffman. A call to John A. Hoffman’s Woodbridge law office was not returned.
John A. Hoffman is the father of Acting New Jersey Attorney General John J. Hoffman.
The property to be purchased is located along Route 1 North, past Finnegan’s Lane in North Brunswick. It is located mostly behind the Hess gas station, between an industrial and truck park.
The tract of vacant land is located in both North Brunswick and South Brunswick and is zoned for light industrial use.
A large for-sale sign bearing a Philadelphia cellular phone number is the only landmark on the property that the county wants to spend precious open space trust fund dollars to purchase.
New Brunswick Today placed a call to Barnett E. Hoffman at the law firm that sits across the street from the property in question, where he is currently listed as the firm's "Of Counsel," only to be told Hoffman left the firm 6-8 months ago.
NO QUESTIONS, NO ANSWERS
At the March 2 meeting, during the less than 3-minute presentation, John A. Hoffman stated that there were “no serious environmental issues” with the property.
He did make a comment about there possibly being some “drums” on the land that need to be removed, and mentioned some concern about what might be in or under them.
None of the five Freeholders present asked any questions or raised any concerns about the purchase or the possible environmental cleanup necessary – nor about the expense and liability to the county taxpayers if a cleanup is needed.
The meeting ended at 6:07 pm, with the Freeholders adjourning the meeting and going into private Executive Session after the meeting had ended to discuss other business.
John A. Hoffman and several associates emerged from the private conference room ten minutes later.
The land purchase he presented was not listed on the resolution for going into executive session.
After the meeting broke, New Brunswick Today came into possession of a Middlesex County Improvement Authority Memorandum dated March 2 from Paul T. Clark and John A. Hoffman and addressed to the Freeholder Board.
Clark is an executive staff member at the Middlesex County Utilities Authority, a job that pays $142,000, and a paid employee of the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, a part-time job that pays an additional $18,000+.
Clark, who was listed on the Freeholder meeting agenda as the person actually giving the land purchase presentation, did not return calls for comment.
Two glaring concerns listed in the memo were the fact that the property is substantially covered in wetlands, and that there is an environmental concern.
The memo also states that the county is paying more for the property than they know it to be worth.
LAND ALREADY VIRTUALLY UNDEVELOPABLE WETLANDS
In the memo from Clark and John A. Hoffman it states that “there are substantial wetlands on the site.”
On March 3, New Brunswick Today spoke with Robert Spiegel, Executive Director of the Edison Wetlands Association.
Generally, when wetlands are present on a property, that area of the property and the surrounding area cannot be developed or built upon.
Spiegel advised that under the law, wetlands are supposed to be protected.
Wetlands “hold a large volume of water per acre” and as such “tend to mitigate floodwaters,” Spiegel advised.
In order to develop on wetlands, clean fill needs to be brought into the land to absorb the water and make it so buildings can be safely built. This process adds significantly to construction costs.
Doing so is only allowed under “certain very specific circumstances,” Spiegel reported. Developing on wetlands requires a very strict permit process administered by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection.
Wetlands can also be protected under federal laws enforced by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Speaking of the permits and the certain very limited exceptions to the otherwise very stringent regulations, Spiegel remarked that “we don’t see too much of that anymore,” as the community and people who live around wetlands vocally oppose their development.
“Wetlands are considered to be property of the state” and under the law are “considered to be a regulated asset” Spiegel stated. As such, when permits to develop wetlands are granted, the state requires compensation from the developers for the loss of the wetlands.
New Brunswick Today also spoke with an attorney experienced in real estate law and development who echoed Spiegel’s statements.
In discussing wetlands in general, he remarked that wetlands are so sheltered under the law, that any wetland is automatically considered to be worth at least $1 more in value then equal property that does not contain wetlands.
These facts alone generally make wetlands worthless property to developers.
New Brunswick Today researched the state wetlands maps for the properties to be purchased. The map shows the land is mostly wetlands.
Also, as the map indicates, across Route 1, there are several known areas under environmental surveillance, and at least two active cleanup projects in process.
A federal map from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists with specificity the classification of the wetlands on the land.
COUNTY NEGOTIATES FOR MORE THAN OWN APPRAISAL VALUE
On page 2 of the MCIA memo, a “Summary of Agreement” lists details about the property.
The property is 3 combined lots – 2 in North Brunswick and 1 in South Brunswick – for a total of 42.92 acres.
The MCIA appraisal lists the total property value at $343,000; however the county is purchasing the property for $360,000, a $17,000 premium – 5% above the appraised value.
The MCIA appraisal was not available to New Brunswick Today, however, it would appear that that price does not take into account the environmental issues.
Asking about prospective clean-up costs, Spiegel estimated that removal and proper disposal of sealed drums could cost upwards of $30,000, commenting that environmental clean-up is “usually not cheap.”
He further advised that, speaking generally, soil and water table contamination is the most difficult environmental damage to mitigate – and the price can quickly climb into the millions per acre or more, depending on the source and extent of the contamination.
CONTAMINATION WOULD MAKE "OPEN SPACE" AN UNUSABLE WASTELAND
The March 2 memo concludes with a numbered item 7, “Environmental: The site has one potential environmental area of concern. Further due diligence is underway.”
Despite the pending nature of this “due diligence,” the property was slated to be purchased on March 5, though the Freeholder meeting was later rescheduled for March 12.
In addition to whatever surface contamination might be present from dumping, deed records indicate an easement from Transcontinental Pipeline Company, dating from the 1950’s.
Corrosion of a large natural gas pipeline was responsible for the 1994 Durham Woods natural gas pipeline explosion that destroyed part of an Edison neighborhood and sent a mushroom and flame cloud into the air that was seen from several counties away and even in New York City.
In that incident, one person suffered a fatal heart attack and many were injured in the blast, with damages ultimately being settled for $65,000,000.
COUNTY TIGHT-LIPPED TO REPORTER’S QUESTIONS
New Brunswick Today spoke to Margaret E. Pemberton, Clerk of the Freeholder Board, March 4 and asked for information on whether the county had even commissioned a Phase I Environmental Audit.
Edison Wetlands’ Spiegel reported that such a study is routine for a land purchase, and is generally “a paper exercise” that involves checking maps, known databases and the like for known or possible environmental issues.
Spiegel further advised that if concerns were raised in the Phase I study, then a Phase II Environmental Audit would be conducted – which could involve taking of soil samples or even sending out an environmental engineer to examine the property.
Pemberton was also asked for clarification on what “environmental concerns” were known, and what the county’s planned use of the property was once acquired.
She was unaware of the details when contacted and has not followed-up or returned messages left at her office.
Attempts to speak to county counsel Thomas Kelso, Esq. and Freeholder Director Ronald Rios were not successful.
FREEHOLDER SPONSORING PURCHASE UNAWARE OF DETAILS
On March 4, New Brunswick Today spoke by telephone with Freeholder Deputy Director Carol Barrett Bellante (D-South Brunswick), the sponsor of the Resolution authorizing the sale.
Bellante said she was not aware of any environmental issues on the property at all. When asked if she was aware of the possible costs to mitigate any environmental issues, she stated “I don’t know about that.”
Bellante went on to say that even if environmental damage is found after the county purchases the land that “not necessarily will it get cleaned up.” In that case, the county would own almost a half-million dollar plot of toxic land.
No official contacted addressed a scenario in which environmental damage found would be required to be cleaned up by either the state or federal government.
As to the fact that once the property was purchased, county taxpayers would be responsible for any clean-up costs, no official seemed to consider that either.
When Bellante was asked about Barnett E. Hoffman, the well-known Democratic Party insider, she responded only that “I know who he is. We’re not friends.”
Even though Bellante and Hoffman are long-time Democratic Party operatives, she mused that “He was a judge, I believe.”
When asked what the county planned to do with the property, she stated there were “no plans that I’m aware of, other than open space.” She added that “not all of the property we buy for open space is for people walk on, enjoy the beauty of.”
Speaking to New Brunswick Today, Spiegel remarked that with regard to open space purchases generally, the Freeholders buy a disproportionate amount of land in southern and central Middlesex County.
Bellante was asked if, considering the glaring and obvious issues mentioned in this memo, whether the county could get more “bang for its open space buck” elsewhere. Bellante responded saying “I’m sure they’re other areas that could be better. Those people wanted to sell. They came to us.”
Attempting to justify this as an open space bargain, Bellante stated that because of the location, a developer could buy the property and clean it up if they wanted to.
The property sits on a US Highway, behind a gas station that serves large trucks and surrounded by industrial property. There are no residential areas around.
Available records indicate the property was purchased by the Hoffman family around 1930, and except for small parcels being sold – including one to to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority – the property has sat as vacant land the entire time of ownership.
Development of industrial property in the already industrial area would mean jobs for local residents, an addition to the tax base and no drain on the local schools.
The county’s purchase of this remote and possibly contaminated property will ensure that the remote industrial area never leads to local jobs or tax revenue.
The vacant wood-covered land currently generates around $4,200 in taxes for North Brunswick and around $2,500 in taxes for South Brunswick.
If the county purchases the property, the 2 municipalities will no longer receive the combined $6,700 in annual taxes.
New Brunswick Today contacted the phone number on the sign and inquired about the for-sale sign.
The call was answered by Thomas S. Schneider, the sole listed owner of the South Brunswick lot.
Schneider quickly stated that he was the owner of the property and that it had already been sold to the county, stating “we’ve already signed the agreement.”
When Bellante was asked about Schneider’s comment, she stated “I don’t know about that.”
Bellante stated that the Resolution will be voted on at the March 5 meeting, and added “I will vote yes.”
The March 5 meeting has been postponed due to inclement weather, and has been rescheduled for March 12 at 7 pm at the Middlesex County Administration Building, located at 75 Bayard Street in New Brunswick.
Middlesex County is solidly controlled by the Democratic Party, and the property purchase is listed for vote on the Consent Agenda – which is supposed to be used for routine, uncontroversial items that are considered to require no discussion, and are voted on as a group of up to a hundred or more together.
Any Freeholder has the ability to demand an item be removed from the Consent Agenda and be discussed separately and in public session.