At a tense Township Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon attended by an overflow crowd of about 90 people, Mayor Patrick Impreveduto made a surprise announcement that the governing body would scrap its vote to adopt the proposed Alcatel-Lucent Redevelopment Plan ordinance after receiving a letter of protest from an Alcatel-Lucent attorney.
The mayor also revealed that the NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection considers the largely bucolic 473-acre former Bell Labs property on Crawfords Corner Road to be within a sewer service area. He explained that the Township Committee had been working out of the public eye to correct that designation by aligning its zoning with the county Wastewater Management Plan, via the Redevelopment Plan ordinance.
The vote to adopt the Redevelopment Plan was essentially a vote to limit the sewer area to just the two million square foot building as exists currently, he explained. But now there would be no vote.
"What this does," said the mayor, "is it gives Lucent the opportunity to do what they will with the property, at any time they wish to do it, until, and if, we can come back with another plan.
"If Lucent wants to knock the building down tomorrow, if they file a petition, or they want to put five or six buildings and make it corporate park, Lucent has every right to do that. We tried to stop that, but unfortunately, this was not successful, based on what has just transpired," said Impreveduto.
The letter signed by a Stephen Eisdorfer of Hill Wallack LLP of Princeton NJ was received by the township on Dec. 20. In the three page document, the attorney representing Alcatel-Lucent called Holmdel township's proposed redevelopment plan "unlawful" under the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law" and "poorly thought through and dysfunctional."
Said Eisdorfer, "It also locks the Township and Alcatel-Lucent into a form of development that is unrealistic and substantially reduces the value of the property. Finally, it represents unsound planning policy."
Eisdorfer pointed out that the requirement that the entire property must be redeveloped by a single entity prevents Alcatel-Lucent from splitting up the property into more marketable parcels. Another requirement that the building be preserved in its present form "saddles Alcatel-Lucent with an artifact that is costly to maintain and difficult to market under realistic market conditions."
At its peak, the facility employed 6,500 quality jobs and many secondary jobs in the region and produced $5 million in tax revenues for Holmdel Township. Now it is unused and only contributes about $700,000 in tax revenues to Holmdel.
"If properly reused, however, it could be a singular resource for resurrecting the economy of the region and the State, and a renewed source of tax revenue for Holmdel Township," said Eisdorfer.
In order to defend itself against a legal protest, the Township Committee would need a super-majority vote, which means an agreement from four out of five members. Knowing that Committeeman Rocco Pascucci, a pediatrician, would be absent for the 1 p.m. public meeting, the governing body apparently still had the option to take a vote with Mayor Impreveduto, Deputy Mayor Serena DiMaso, Committeeman Eric Hinds and Committeeman Larry Fink. But they did not do so, and did not offer an explanation.
Fink, the only Democrat on the Republican-majority board, a longtime advocate for open government and environmental issues, said, "I am relieved we are not taking action on this plan today. I think we were moving too fast, and there were several deficiencies which I observed in the plan myself," he said. "I personally thought there was more work to be done on the plan, and more public opportunities for public input."
Many people who spoke at the public meeting are also CILU members. But also present were residents who were curious or concerned about the issue, a developer who envisions a tech company at the site, representatives of Somerset Development (which is no longer in talks with Alcatel-Lucent) and the editor of PreservingHolmdel.com, a Bell Labs facility fan site.
Judging from the largest crowd of the year, there was no denying the passion for the landmark site, which not so long ago provided quality employment, tax revenues and pride in the community. Committeeman Hinds, a member of the Alcatel-Lucent sub-Committee, tried forcefully to assure the large gathering -- some of whom who had spoken out critically about the Comittee or the Plan -- that Holmdel elected officials were working in the best interest of Holmdel residents.
"We have fought hard that it is not the 'Wild, Wild West' at that property, and that we don't have condos or jail or Taco Bells or shopping mall or movie theater or all the things we've heard. Until there is a buyer, until there is somebody with a plan, why the hysteria? You did elect all of us. Have some confidence and faith that we are all trying to do the right thing," he said.
Resident Martin Brilliant replied to the Committee, explaining that the public could not be blamed for wondering why the rush to wrap up the highly-anticipated Redevelopment Plan in the busy Hanukah/Christmas week, even changing the time of the public hearing to 1 o'clock in the afternoon to avoid conflict with the observance of Hanukah. "Your indignation at being misunderstood is misplaced. You should have expected to be misunderstood."
Althought it was no longer a public hearing on the Redevelopment Plan, the Township Committee heard several other residents' concerns. After the meeting ended, Mayor Impreveduto wished residents happy holidays and shook hands with his colleagues, including Committeeman Fink.
Although deeply disappointed with the turn of events which he believes was sparked by misinformation, the mayor said he was willing to return to the drawing board with the Committee in 2012 to start again on a new Redevelopment Plan.
"In the very near future, I think we need to have better dialogue with Lucent, and we'll be working closely with them to both help market the property in the best way that best fits Holmdel. That's our initial step," he said.
"As a Committee, we'll talk about having future meetings in regard to the Redevelopment Plan." With the public? "Absolutely," replied the mayor.