Fight for zoning change in Cranford touches race for U.S. Senate

Union County GOP Chairman Phil Morin and U.S. Senate candidate Anne Evans Estabrook stand in the middle of a controversial real estate development deal in Cranford that has become an issue in the race for Township Committee.

The County Chairman can’t give money to help at least one GOP candidate, because if he did, the candidate says he believes the money would leave him open to an attack of being a sell out — and crush him politically.

That’s because Morin also serves as the attorney for Woodmont Properties, LLC. Woodmont wants to alter the zoning for two properties on Birchwood Avenue from low density office to residential, so that the Parsippany developer can buy nearly 16 acres from Elberon Development, which is owned by Estabrook, a Republican who wants to run against Frank R. Lautenberg next year.

Morin serves on Estabrook’s campaign exploratory committee – his early support surprised some Republicans because Union County Assemblyman Jon Bramnick is mulling a U.S. Senate bid — but the fledgling candidate said Morin’s presence as the applicant’s attorney does not constitute a conflict.

"There is no conflict because I didn’t hire Morin," Estabrook said. "Woodmont hired Morin. Woodmont is the applicant."

If Morin, a former Cranford Mayor, can get the Planning Board to change the zoning, Woodmont would build 124 age-restricted units, in a town where "there is presently no over-55 housing in Cranford," according to Estabrook, who calls neighborhood resistance to the project a simple case of NIMBY — not in my backyard.

But it’s a NIMBY that won’t go away.

"The problem is it’s an area on the north side of town where we’ve had significant flooding problems," says former Cranford Mayor Norman Albert, the Democratic candidate for the Assembly in District 21.

Estabrook argues that Woodmont’s studies show its plans for her two properties — at 215 and 235 Birchwood Avenue — would actually improve the town’s infrastructure and result in limiting the possibility of flooding in the area. Prognostications like that — even without the corroboration of a state environmental impact study — have apparently softened the one-time tough environmental commission, which neighbors say appears to have gone AWOL in the face of this particular proposal.

In 2002, Nelson Dittmar, the commission’s chairman, sent a memo to the Board of Adjustment concerning a developer’s request for a zoning variance.

"We believe that further development in the township only exacerbates this problem," Dittmar wrote. "The proposed development will increase our community’s density, and the amount of impervious surface and traffic."

Five years later, on March 6, 2007, Dittmar issued a letter to the Township Planning Board concerning the application by Woodmont and the land owned by Estabrook.

"While we know the application involves the presentation of a concept plan to support a potential change in zoning, as opposed to a traditional site plan, we have a recommendation that we believe should be incorporated into the site plan when it is presented," Dittmar wrote. He then proceeded to recommend green building standards.

Opponents of the Estabrook-Woodmont project say it’s not only the flooding question that makes the plan problematic. It’s what will happen if the town goes belly up for the powerful Estabrook.

According to Cranford builder Vince Bontempo, the "overlay zoning" designation that Woodmont wants the town to tailor specifically for Estabrooks’ two properties would open the town up to lawsuits from other owners of commercial property on Birchwood Avenue, who could easily argue that what was good for Estabrook should be good for them, too.

"They would win those lawsuits," said Bontempo. "Because Woodmont has presented an application that is devoid of fact."

Whatever its foundation, the application is significantly assisted by Morin.

"It would stand to reason that he’s on my exploratory committee because he’s the union county party chairman," said Estabrook.

Local Democrats are delighted to have an issue.

"The entire town is against it (the zoning change), but the developer was smart enough to use Morin, who is petitioning the governing body," said Township Committeeman George McDonough, who with his running mate, incumbent George Jorn is in a re-election battle against Republican newcomers Mark Smith and Martha Garcia.

In addition to being the GOP’s candidate for municipal office and a member of the Planning Board, the 55-year old Smith is seen by some members of his own party as an unsuspecting prop within the larger machinations of Cranford politics, and ultimately, along with Garcia, a sacrificial lamb.

Residents have been blitzkrieging Planning Board meetings, attempting to quash the project, which roughly 150 of them publicly believe is out of keeping with the town’s master plan. Locals like Rita LaBrutto leaned on the Board to put the issue to a vote before the election so the people can see where everyone stands. But Morin and Planning Board Attorney Nicholas A. Giuditta III cancelled a Sept. 19th meeting at which the vote was to have taken place. They re-scheduled the meeting in early December, at a safe distance beyond Nov. 6th, Election Day.

Now nearly all of the town’s officials — both elected and appointed, including Republican Mayor Michael Plick — are underground on the issue of Birchwood Avenue.

"The Planning Board acts like a quasi-judicial board," said member Gary Surmay. "We’re not supposed to speak about a case until after it’s over."

McDonough brags that he and Jorn won in town in 2004, even as George W. Bush was carrying the town by a large plurality. Now McDonough is hoping the ultimate NIMBY situation will help net him another three-year term.

"Why can’t we do this?" said McDonough of the vote. "This should be a slam-dunk."

Smith believes McDonough from his perch in the 3-2 minority on the Township Committee is hoping there will be no vote. For as long as there is outrage in the community over a stalled Planning Board – where Smith sits – McDonough can easily harness that angst over Republican leadership and ride it all the way to his own re-election.

Intent on making a public show of his dismay over the attorneys’ stall tactics, Smith, for his part, intends to go before the Township Committee this Tuesday to issue a challenge of his own.

"I will make a public statement urging the governing body to encourage the Planning Board to have a vote before the election," said Smith, anxious to crush any doubt that he’s his own man who will not be cowed by Morin, who did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

McDonough says it doesn’t matter what recommendations the Township Committee makes, the Republican power players don’t want a vote, so there won’t be a vote. It’s that simple. They have the numbers. He and Jorn don’t.

But while the Democrats in this cycle are only too happy to use the ammunition the GOP is providing in the form of Morin and Estabrook, the players amassed in the Estabrook-Morin-Woodmont alliance go beyond the Republican Party. The GOP figures they have a solid refutation of Democrats who try to argue that this is just big business as usual in Republican shake-and-wink land. That argument is no less compelling than the presence of Livingston Mayor Steven Santola, a Democrat who is Woodmont’s General Counsel.

Before joining Woodmont, Santola was a partner in a law firm founded by Estabrook’s late husband.

It is Morin, however, the talented and upwardly mobile thirty-something lawyer who faces the greatest likelihood of backlash on the local level as he considers the prospect of another tour of duty as county chairman when his term comes to an end in June.

Despite Estabrook’s’ argument that Morin is not technically her hire, Republicans roll their eyes at the County Chairman’s self-inflicted public relations pickle.

In a legislative election year in which other counties are battling to make ethics, asset monetization, and property taxes the issues and are not going out of their way to advertise the party’s national leadership by the terminally unpopular Bush, the Union County GOP’s website features inexplicably and front and center an image of Bush and access to the President’s 2006 State of the Union speech.

But what’s happening in Cranford is the more telling trouble for Republicans here, according to Morin’s intra-party detractors.

As for Smith, the erstwhile GOP candidate and Planning Board member assured that he had "absolutely not" received any money from the Union County Republican Organization. Would he take it if it were offered?

"Probably not," Smith said. "People would think I’m being influenced by Phil Morin."

Fight for zoning change in Cranford touches race for U.S. Senate