Union’s battle with Kean rages on

Township orders parking lot to end agreement with school over zoning issues

UNION COUNTY — Although Kean University officials thought they could add 200 additional parking spaces behind the former Merck office building just by leasing it, they were wrong. In fact, the township ordered the owner of the property to break its contract with the university immediately or face penalties and fines of $1,200 a day.

The owner of the parking lot in question – Lamar Properties – immediately backed out of the agreement with Kean and as of now the 200 parking spots were no longer available to students and faculty.

Township Construction and Zoning Official Rich Malanda sent an email Oct. 9 to Lamar Properties, who bought the acreage from Merck. He explained to the company it was against local zoning laws to negotiate a lease with the university, which in turn used it for additional parking for Kean students and faculty.

“Parking at your site is an accessory use for your building only. Any other use would be a violation of the township of Union’s Land Use Ordinance,” Malanda said in his letter, instructing the business to “cease this operation at once.”

The zoning and construction official suggested to Lamar Properties that if the company wanted to lease their parking lot to Kean, they would have to apply to the township board of adjustment for a variance. Until they did, though, Malanda ordered all signs directing students and faculty to the lot removed and new signs or barriers erected to keep traffic away from their property.

At issue is that Lamar Properties was allocated only so many parking spaces for their particular business by the zoning board and those spaces were specifically allocated for that company’s use only. Leasing space to anyone, including the university, required they apply to the zoning board for a variance, or apply for relief from the land use ordinance.

In response to the township’s edict, on Oct. 16 Kean Executive Vice President of Operations, Philip Connelly, sent an email to students, faculty and staff explaining the lot would no longer be available for parking as of end of business day on Oct. 17.

The email, provided to LocalSource by both faculty and students, explained the arrangement the university had negotiated with Lamar Properties for the 200 additional parking spots “in their underutilized lot” was over.

In the email, Connelly pointed out the township notified Lamar Properties to “immediately break its parking contract with Kean University” or face stiff penalties and fines totaling $1,200 a day.

Animosity that has festered over the last six months between Kean and the township was evident in the email.
“This arrangement was made in a spirit of community and service and certainly was a welcome step of progress for all of us,” Connelly said, adding “unfortunately the township did not see it this way.”

“The township did not advise the university of it’s opposition to this arrangement or provide any rational explanation for its position other than citing zoning ordinances related to Lamar,” he added, but did mention that discussions with both Lamar and township officials did result in the township agreeing to allow the parking lot to remain in use until Oct. 17.

If Kean was banking on the township giving in and allowing the university to keep the lot open because of their parking issues, they were mistaken.

“The township will not change its stance on this matter and the university must abide by Lamar’s wishes and end the arrangement,” Connelly said.

Friday, Assistant Township Administrator Tammie Kopin made it clear this had nothing to do with the township committee or administration changing its mind. It was, she said, the law.

“The agreement entered into was in violation of the township’s land use ordinance and the only authority who can grant a variance of this type is the board of adjustment,” Kopin noted, adding “had the university discussed this matter with the township prior to entering into an illegal agreement, we certainly would have made them aware of the options.”

Although Connelly mentioned students could find additional parking at the university athletic field or N.J. Transit train station lot after 10 a.m., with enrollment hovering near 10,938 in 2013 and just 4,300 parking spots available, the university has a definitive parking dilemma.

Despite the ongoing parking debacle, township officials refused to back down.

Mayor Clifton People made it clear that regardless what the state allowed the university to do on its own property, breaking township zoning laws will not be permitted.

“Unfortunately for the students and faculty of Kean the university and the entity with which they made a parking agreement did not contact the township prior to entering into the agreement. Had they done so, we could have informed them of the proper protocol to try and move forward with an agreement of this nature,” the mayor said in a statement Friday, adding “once again the university has moved ahead with something they do not have the authority to do.”

The fact Kean has moved ahead with major construction projects in recent years without either notifying or consulting with the township has been a sore spot with Union officials, elected and otherwise.

Specifically, the township has continued to have issues with University President Dawood Farahi and the Kean Board of Trustees, who have a track record of not notifying the township about planned construction projects. Although the university has maintained that they work collaboratively with the township, Union officials maintain nothing could be further from the truth.

According to Township Administrator Ron Manzella, Kean has never kept Union officials informed about what is being built at the university, even though they are not required to do so by law.

“Because Kean University is in Union, we should be aware of what is being built and the university should share that information with us,” Manzella said, confessing that they have no idea what is going on at Kean.

This came to a boiling point in late spring when Kean officials decided to accept the “right of first refusal” to buy the 50-acre Merck property fronting Morris Avenue.

The township, along with a developer who was in negotiations with Merck to buy the land, and Kean University are now involved in a legal battle that is making its way through the courts in order to resolve who should have the right to buy the property.

The developer, John Russo of Russo Development, and the township, believe that the university is using the right of first refusal, granted to John Kean 30 years ago, as a “legal maneuver” to gain access to the desirable Merck acreage. In May, the mayor was so incensed by Kean’s stance on the Merck property that they took out a full page ad in LocalSource to explain to residents what was going on. At issue, the mayor said, was the township losing out on the Merck property being developed by a private developer, which would generate more than $5 million in taxes.

However, should the court maintain Kean indeed had legal right to the right of first refusal, they would be exempt from paying those taxes.

Although the Kean University Director of Media Relations has continued to maintain the university worked closely with “the academic, county and township leaders,” Township Administrator Ron Manzella, the mayor and other elected officials denied this took place.

The mayor even stressed that in his full page ad the township took on in LocalSource June 19.

“Kean University President Dawood Farahi has repeatedly said the university is in a partnership with the township, yet there has been no announcement by the university on possible land usage. Why?” the mayor asked, referring to the fact Kean had refused to say what they would do with the 50 acres of Merck land should they acquire it.

Although university officials have maintained they will “make the township whole” when it comes to tax revenue, Manzella said past history tells him that will never happen.

“Kean was supposed to pay for a new fire truck because our fire department covers the university, but they stopped making payments,” the township administrator said.