In the red-hot real estate market of New Jersey’s fastest-growing municipality, Laurie Leeds stands out in a crowded field of investors.
She is not only notable for her trademark wide-brimmed hat, but also for the size of her real estate holdings, which consist of an impressive 31 Lakewood properties acquired over the years.
These days, the notoriously camera-shy Leeds is not just taking center stage in acquiring investment properties in a township that is not her home, but in protecting them from other investors developing theirs – even if that means addressing a live-streamed public meeting of the Lakewood Planning Board, as she did on Tuesday night, August 7, 2018.
Leeds did not pull any punches. She threatened to file a lawsuit the following day if members approved a residential development project calling for the installation of a water/sewer pipe through her neighboring property without her signed permission.
New Jersey’s Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) requires that all property owners within 200 feet of a proposed major subdivision or major site plan with variances be notified in writing of the project.
Some Lakewood property owners have charged that they were not notified by certified mail as required by state law.
During the planning board hearing, Adil Homes, LLC asked for approval of an amended preliminary and final major subdivision to adjust approved lots located on Block 190 on East County Line Road.
Leeds owns property on Block 191.
She also owns property located on Block 351 in the Industrial Park’s M1 zone on James Street.
So does Lakewood Township.
Since Leeds owns most of the block, a total of 1.65 acres, she cannot sell her investment property to developers without acquiring the township’s 8,000-square-foot-undersized parcel on the same block.
Under the 2013 Revised Statutes, Title 40A – Municipalities and Counties, Section 40A:12-13.2 – Sales of real property; right of first refusal of contiguous owners, owners of private property neighboring undersized public property have the right of first refusal whenever the municipality intends to sell that property.
Members of the Lakewood Township Committee had other plans for undersized public property contiguous to hers.
Instead of offering it for sale to Leeds, the adjacent property owner, committeemen offered to exchange the undersized public parcel with Diamond Triumph Properties, LLC, the owner of a 4,100-square-foot-undersized parcel located on Block 445, Lot 6 in RM zone, based on the two parcels’ assessed values, instead of their appraised values.
Block 351, Lot 3, owned by Lakewood Township, has an assessed property value of $8,800, while Block 445, Lot 6 has an assessed value of $19,000. However, Block 445, Lot 6 is nearly inaccessible due to its’ landlocked location.
According to the Ocean County Tax Board Web site, Diamond Triumph Properties LLC is located at 22 Carasaljo Drive, the home of Yecheskel (Charlie) Schwab.
Schwab is the owner of DataMap Intelligence LLC, a property mapping service.
In a March 7, 2018 post, NJ News & Views reported a business relationship between Schwab and Committeeman Menashe Miller.
A 2013 invoice, which a reporter for NJ News & Views received under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), included a hand-written notation instructing township officials to turn over the check, totaling $110,000 and made out to DataMap Intelligence, to “Mr. Miller.”
The invoice also included the notation, printed out in capital letters above the hand-written instruction: “ENTERED BY PURCHASING DEPT. AS PER YEHUDA ABRAHAM AND MINASHE MILLER.”
Yehuda Abraham is Lakewood Township Purchasing Agent. He received the appointment during Miller’s administration as Lakewood mayor of 2012.
NJ News & Views requested copies of the front and back of the canceled check, which was endorsed by “DataMap,” instead of Miller’s own name as an officer of the company.
Miller did not disclose the income on his 2014 Financial Disclosure, which reports all sources of income earned in excess of $2,000 during 2013.
Miller also failed to disclose his part-time salary that year as a director of the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce (LCOC). Miller did not report his income from the part-time position until 2017, which reported his 2016 sources of income.
Although the Chamber’s Web site provided Miller’s biography, it did not state exactly what work the committeeman performed for the organization that benefited its’ members.
Since first being affirmed onto the township committee in January 2004, Miller has never served as the appointed liaison to either the Lakewood Industrial Commission (LIC) or the Lakewood Development Corporation (LDC), which share the same goal as the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce – to promote jobs and business in the township.
Miller did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.
Miller is currently under investigation by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, based on a complaint that the 5-term committeeman personally profited from his public office. The complaint included a link to findings reported by NJ News & Views in the March 7, 2018 post.
In 2013, California resident Kenneth Garzo informed Lakewood officials in documents NJ News & Views obtained under OPRA that he was the heir to over 200 parcels formerly owned by his late uncle, New York real estate investor Maximilian Hirshberg. Hirshberg’s late widow, Florence, inherited the properties upon her husband’s death. In 2014, the executor of her estate transferred title to the properties to Garzo through an omnibus deed posted on the Ocean County Clerk’s Web site.
Garzo included documents prepared by DataMap to prove his claim to public and private properties on which the township had foreclosed during the 1970s and 1980s. However, the DataMap documents were prepared for Garzo the same year DataMap was under contract to the township, making the work for Garzo a conflict of interest.
In December 2016, Garzo sued Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller, Lakewood Municipal Manager Thomas L. Henshaw, Lakewood Township and a representative of the Cedarbridge Redevelopment Corporation, which the township contracted to lease or sell space in Lakewood’s Corporate Park . Garzo claims title to several undersized parcels in the area, including the adjacent baseball stadium’s parking lot.
According to Garzo’s legal papers, the officials reportedly met with him at municipal offices in February 2016 to negotiate a global settlement of his claim to the Hirshberg properties that called for the exchange of public property for the foreclosed properties, then reneged on the deal.
If he prevails, Garzo can ask the court to have Lakewood taxpayers to reimburse his legal costs, as well as those of the township.
Garzo can also settle out of court for his original deal of public land for foreclosed property, valued at millions of taxpayer dollars.
Miller and Lakewood Township continue to do business with Schwab, to the profit of both men and the continued expense of Lakewood taxpayers.
Last month, it was Leeds whose investment took second place to Miller and Schwab’s money-making scheme.
According to Ordinance M-3, scheduled for second reading on the township committee’s July 12, 2018 meeting agenda, township Tax Assessor Edward Seeger had determined that public property located on Block 351, Lot 3 was equal in value to private property located on Block 445, Lot 6, and that the exchange would benefit Lakewood by development of private property as a public park.
Under the 2013 Revised Statutes, Title 40A – Municipalities and Counties, Section 40A:12-16 – Exchanges of certain lands; exceptions, the municipality can exchange public property for private property. However, taxpayers must receive “full and fair value” for public property as determined by the municipal tax assessor, pursuant to R.S. 54:4-23 for the then current tax year.
In other words, the exchange of public property for private property must be based on the appraised value of public and private land, not the assessed value.
A reporter for NJ News & Views made an OPRA request for Seeger’s recommendation to exchange public and private property for their assessed values, which he reported to be equal in value.
In response, township officials informed the reporter that the requested document did not exist.
By exchanging public land for private land based on the properties’ assessed values, Schwab and Miller can flip their new acquisition for a profit at the appraised value.
The ordinance stated that Block 351, Lot 3 held no “intrinsic” value, even though is was located on a block owned by a single private property investor, and that the exchange would return public property to the tax rolls.
So would sale of public property to the adjacent property owner.
“It is in the best interests of the Township of Lakewood to exchange these parcels,” the ordinance concluded.
No, it was not.
Any developer that proposes a project on Block 445 must include open space or a tot lot or playground. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize a developer’s obligation to homebuyers that purchase a unit in his or her proposed development.
If a municipality seeks to build a playground or park on an undersized lot for public use, the local governing body can condemn private property for a public purpose under Title 40 – Municipalities and Counties, Section 40:61-1 General powers; acquisition of property. The local governing body does not have to exchange valuable public property not located immediately adjacent to private property for that purpose.
Instead of exchanging his undersized parcel for public property, Schwab could offer to donate it to the taxpayers of Lakewood. His generosity would benefit everybody, not just a select few.
That is a gesture that real estate investor Ovadi Malchi made several years ago with land he could not develop either. Malchi’s property was located near the Metedeconk River, a protected C-1 waterway with a 300-foot buffer.
Instead of accepting Malchi’s gift, which would have enabled the township to preserve environmentally-sensitive land, the township committee declined it, citing its’ lack of access.
Malchi’s act of kindness not only sets an example for private citizens, but public officials as well.
Committeemen could have shown the same benevolence as Malchi by offering public property located on Block 351, Lot 3 for private sale to Leeds, the adjacent property owner, but they did not. Leeds had to assert her rights by offering a sale price far in excess of the property’s assessed value, unlike Schwab.
At the July 12, 2018 committee meeting, members of the audience and viewers watching the live stream did not see Leeds address the local governing body in opposition to the property exchange. However, committeemen discussed her offer to buy Block 351, Lot 3 during the videotaped workshop meeting that preceded the public meeting that night.
Before agreeing on a private land sale price of $25,000, one committeemen suggested a sale price of $35,000 – even though Block 351, Lot 3 is assessed at only $8,800.
A reporter for NJ News & Views attempted to ask committeemen about the land exchange during the public forum held following the ordinance’s second reading. Instead, Mayor Raymond Coles informed the reporter that the committee was “killing” the ordinance, and did not allow her to publicly discuss it.
According to Robert’s Rule of Order, in order to “kill” an ordinance, Coles was required to ask for a motion and second to approve the ordinance after second reading and a public hearing. If no member of the governing body responds, the ordinance “dies.”
That did not happen on July 12, 2018.
That does not mean Miller and Schwab do not have an alternative get-rich-quick scheme.
On the same meeting agenda, Ordinance N-2, scheduled for first reading, called for the exchange of land with Diamond Triumph Properties, LLC for the same undersized lot. However, the new ordinance proposes the exchange because the township “believes” that it would be more advantageous for municipality to own Block 445, Lot 6 for future combination with adjacent lots owned by the township.
Lakewood Township owns Block 445, Lot 3, which is not contiguous to Lot 6. It is the location of the Lakewood Fire Tower, which provides the highest unobstructed view of the 25-square-mile municipality from it.
It is not advantageous for Lakewood taxpayers to also acquire Block 445, Lot 6. As long as Diamond Triumph owns property it cannot develop, taxpayers do not have to subsidize municipal or district services to any improvement on it, while investors in the LLC must continue to pay taxes that subsidize services to other taxpayers in Lakewood.
But that is not what Schwab or Miller plan to do with their investment.
Instead of getting an undersized lot that would have reduced the value of Leeds’ property, while increasing the value of their acquisition to her, Schwab and Miller have set their sights on public property designated for preservation under the township’s Smart Growth Plan.
Located on Block 1264, Lot 1 in the B-5 zone, the 1.16-acre site is east of Shorrock Street, next to the Costco building on the south side of Route 70.
Ordinance N-2 incorrectly reported that Block 1264, Lot 1 was located in the B-2 zone, but correctly reported that the site was undersized because the B-5 zone requires a buildable lot of two (2) acres. However, JSM at Brick Properties LLC owns 1.20 acres on Block 1252, Lot 1, and 1.97 acres on Block 1262, Lot 3. The properties are separated by paper streets the township committee could vote to vacate, giving Diamond Triumph Properties the opportunity to acquire a total of 4.33 acres – enough to qualify for a Planned Educational Campus.
Schools are a permitted use in the B-5 zone.
A Planned Educational Campus includes schools, faculty housing and student dormitories.
For Schwab and Miller, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if the deal goes through, but not for Lakewood taxpayers.
Instead of holding a public land auction, Diamond Triumph Properties LLC will pay Lakewood Township an additional $13,000 for a total acquisition price that will equal the public property’s assessed land value, rather than its’ market value.
The assessed land value of the vacant public property is $32,000, but its’ appraised value may be much greater.
A reporter for NJ News & Views made an OPRA request for the appraiser’s report of the market value of Block 445, Lot 6. The township clerk’s office responded by informing the reporter that the requested document did not exist.
According to Ordinance N-2, scheduled for first reading on the July 12, 2018 Lakewood Township Committee meeting agenda, at 1.16 acres, public property on Block 1264, Lot 1 is undersized, adjacent only to paper streets and is of no practical use to the Township.
Not according to documents Lakewood submitted last year for state Plan Endorsement.
Page 21 of the revised 2013 Lakewood Smart Growth Plan calls for preservation of the following areas:
1.) Lands along the Kettle Creek near Route 70 and in the proposed Oak Street Core
2.) Crystal Lake Preserve Area
3.) Wetlands and wooded areas in the Cedarbridge Redevelopment Area
4.) Areas within Lakewood Shenandoah Park adjoining Cedarbridge Avenue
5.) Wetlands north of Cedarbridge Avenue in the Lakewood Industrial Park
6.) Undeveloped areas along Shorrock Street to be combined with existing Green Acres preserved land
7.) Lands east of the Garden State Parkway, adjoining the township boundary with Brick Township
8.) A portion of the former Department of Public Works site along the Cabinfield Branch
The township’s Smart Growth Plan is a requirement for state Plan Endorsement.
In 2016, the state Planning Commission granted conditional Plan Endorsement to Lakewood Township, provided local government incorporated its’ Smart Growth Plan with the township’s Master Plan and adopted ordinances that advanced it.
The township was also required to demonstrate that it would have adequate water and waste water capacity for its’ projected growth.
As reported by NJ News & Views, the township was given an extension to meet those requirements last year.
The state extension did not help Lakewood meet its’ deadline.
Neither did a lawsuit challenging the validity of documents already filed with the state for Plan Endorsement.
Late last year, the homeowners association (HOA) of The Fairways at Lake Ridge, an adult community located on Massachusetts Avenue whose name references its’ proximity to the neighboring, award-winning Eagle Ridge Golf Course, filed suit to stop the amenity’s proposed redevelopment. The developer, GDMS LLC, reportedly paid the Kokes Organization $9.5 million for the golf course, then proposed an ambitious redevelopment plan for it consisting of 1,872 units of housing, commercial retail space, a clubhouse and five acres of Lakewood’s most precious commodity – on-site parking.
Following public protest, the DEP instructed GDMS to hold a public hearing on the proposed project. GDMS held a public forum on May 9, 2017, in the Jackson Memorial High School auditorium, the largest available area venue. A reporter for NJ News & Views attended the hearing on that date and noted that every one of the 1,200 available seats was filled, mostly with objectors to the proposed redevelopment plan.
One Fairways resident held up a sign from his seat in the audience that read, “DON’T TURN CROSS STREET INTO A LOST STREET.”
The Fairways is located at the intersection of Massachusetts with Route 70 and Cross Street. The township has designated Cross Street for dense development on its’ Smart Growth Plan.
Senator Robert Singer, who represented Lakewood as a committeeman for 30 years until 2010, and continues to represent the township in the state’s 30th Legislative District, did not attend the public forum. Instead, Singer met with Lakewood district administrators, state monitors and former board of education attorney Michael Inzelbuch to negotiate the terms of his rehire.
No elected members of the Lakewood Board of Education were informed of the meeting so they could attend it, according to board member Ada Gonzalez.
Several weeks after GDMS held a public forum on its’ proposed redevelopment plan for the golf course, the DEP rejected the plan.
Or so it seemed.
After initially rejecting GDMS’ application for a permit, the DEP met behind closed doors to settle the matter out of court.
In the November 2017 DEP Bulletin, the department announced a settlement with GDMS, which had submitted a modified plan for redevelopment of the golf course. Instead of 1,872 units, the developer proposed 517 townhouses, each with a basement apartment, for a total of 1,034 residential units on the former golf course.
The timing of the announcement was conspicuous, published days before the November election in which Singer was running for re-election to his state Senate seat.
Singer owns a home in Island Heights, which is not a township he represents in the 30th Legislative District. During the work week, Singer reportedly rents a home that is owned by GDMS in The Enclave, an adult community that the Kokes Organization developed in Lakewood on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue from its’ sister development, The Fairways.
Despite Singer’s absence from a public discussion of the proposed redevelopment of the golf course as a mixed-use development, he won his bid for another 6-year term in the state Senate.
Government lobbyists may not be as fortunate in 2018 as they were in 2017.
On December 17, 2018, former Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford, now a state Superior Court Judge, sitting in Toms River, is scheduled to hear the Fairways HOA lawsuit against GDMS and township officials.
According to the 31-page lawsuit, filed by land use attorney Michele R. Donato, the Fairways HOA is challenging the rezoning of the golf course for dense residential redevelopment by asking Ford to invalidate Lakewood’s Master Plan and to void the ordinances adopted by the Lakewood Township Committee to rezone the municipality under it.
The lawsuit also asks Ford to place a protective trust on the golf course until GDMS agrees to protect it as open space.
In addition, the lawsuit charges the following:
1.) Lakewood Township ignored the MLUL’s environmental impact and open space preservation requirements;
2.) The Lakewood Township Committee did not adopt the planning board’s recommended infrastructure improvements in adopting the planning board’s recommended zoning changes based on them;
3.) Lakewood Mayor Raymond Coles’ planning board designee, Angela Zografos née Koutsouris, an employee of Gilmore & Monahan, the law firm owned by George Gilmore, head of the Ocean County Republican Party, does not live in Lakewood; and that
4.) Committeeman Marc (Meir) Lichtenstein, owner of MSL Property Management, works for three principles of GDMS, creating a conflict of interest from which he did not recuse as a voting member of the Lakewood Township Committee.
During Reorganization 2004, following Lichtenstein’s and Miller’s 2003 election to the Lakewood Township Committee, members voted to appoint Lichtenstein as liaison to the Lakewood Zoning Board of Adjustment. Every year for the next for seven years, committee members re-appointed Lichtenstein to the liaison position, even though the zoning board grants exceptions to ordinances adopted by the Lakewood Township Committee, making the position a conflict of interest as well.
According to sources, during those seven years, Lichtenstein, like Miller, sold his influence to government lobbyists. In exchange for guaranteeing zoning board approval, Lichtenstein’s management company was contracted to manage applicant’s properties.
Following years of NJ News & Views reporting the liaison position as a conflict of interest, the township committee no longer appoints a liaison to the zoning board. Instead, members appointed Lichtenstein their liaison to Planning & Zoning, instead of appointing a committeeman that does not stand to personally profit from his public service.
On August 16, 2018, Miller also stands to personally profit from his public service.
Or maybe not.
His fortunes may rise or fall, depending on whether or not Lakewood can develop the municipality in accordance with a blueprint for growth that some state officials approved, and others did not.
In December 2017, Gerard (Gerry) P. Scharfenberger, Ph.D., the director of the state Office of Planning Advocacy (OPA), signed off on Lakewood’s 10-year Plan Endorsement, which he registered on the same date the new governor, Phil Murphy, was sworn into office on January 16, 2018.
One month later, Gov. Phil Murphy reportedly fired Scharfenberger, who had requested to continue serving as OPA director before his dismissal.
According to media reports, Murphy fired Scharfenberger after the OPA director did not appear at a scheduled press conference Murphy had asked him to attend. Murphy reportedly scheduled the press conference Scharfenberger did not attend in order to discuss his administration’s new environmental policy.
Scharfenberger continues to serve as a member of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders and as part-time adjunct professor of anthropology at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, where www.ratemyprofessors.com reports he is a popular instructor.
Murphy’s relationship with state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney may be just as problematic as his relationship with Scharfenberger.
For the past seven months, the state Planning Commission Scharfenberger directed has not met due to lack of a quorum of appointed members.
That will not change anytime soon.
According to media reports, Sweeney wanted the job that Murphy won. Murphy is unlikely to give Sweeney the satisfaction of rejecting any appointees he may submit to the Senate in its’ advisory role.
Earlier this month, NJ News & Views submitted an OPRA request with the N.J. Governor’s Office, asking for Murphy’s list of proposed candidates for appointment to the state Planning Commission.
On August 10, 2018, the reporter received an e-mail from the records custodian with a denial of access letter attachment. The letter informed the reporter that the requested document did not exist.
The last time the state Planning Commission met was on January 10, 2018, which ironically was the commission’s Reorganization meeting. Since that time, the commission has not met to continue its’ discussion of Lakewood’s Plan Endorsement with Fairways HOA spokesman Rob Robison and Fairways attorney Michele Donato.
Robison told NJ News & Views that when the commission does meet again, he will ask commissioners to reverse Scharfenberger’s approval of Lakewood’s Plan Endorsement.
That may not be necessary.
In February, the same month Murphy fired Scharfenberger, the DEP rejected Lakewood’s water service delivery plan. As a result, the township did not meet all requirements for dense development of areas regulated by the Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA), which would have permitted an increase in the percentage of impervious coverage from the current 35 percent to as much as 80 percent.
According to a state official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, DEP rejection of Lakewood’s Plan Endorsement may not make a difference.
The official told NJ News & Views that in Lakewood, the threshold for CAFRA jurisdiction is much higher, requiring 75 or more units of residential or 150 or more parking spaces for any non-residential use – from which schools are exempt.
“So even without the allowable site coverage densities that the Township Smart Growth Plan sought to incorporate for CAFRA-sized projects, there is a huge potential for dense development which would not need CAFRA permits,” the official told a reporter. “As a result, there is much building in the CAFRA area of Lakewood that sails right under the CAFRA permitting requirements.”
The official shared his thoughts about Lakewood’s future development.
“I believe that the Lakewood government officials and the secular officials know that higher density development is the only way to accommodate the burgeoning population which seeks to remain in the township, but this type of development is the antithesis of what many other residents want to see.”