Union Merck property battle continues

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The tug-of-war between Russo Acquisitions Development Company, Kean University, and Union continues over the Merck property in Union..
In February 2014, Russo reached an agreement to buy the land from Merck — which is located directly across the street from Kean’s main campus — but the university subsequently declared that it had the right to acquire the land, which was once all owned by the Kean family.

Then, in January 2015, Superior Court Judge Katherine Dupuis rejected the university’s claim of having the right to purchase the land, a decision deemed a victory by township officials who had filed a civil suit against Kean to try and stop them from taking the land.

Now — more than a year later — litigation continues over the 46-acre piece of property.
In a continued effort to find a workable solution for the property, township attorney Dan Antonelli appeared last week at a status conference meeting in Superior Court. Antonelli, along with other township officials, have concerns with Kean obtaining the large property, such as loss of property tax revenue, traffic congestion and parking issues.

“Kean University has overdeveloped its campus,” said Antonelli. “We are not only concerned with the loss in revenue,” he said, referring to the $4 million in property taxes that the township would lose to the tax-exempt public university. “We want responsible development that will address and reduce the traffic on Morris Avenue.”

Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo said that he is concerned about the impact on township residents. “It’s a quality of life issue for our residents,” said Figueiredo. “As mayor, our concern is for our residents.”

According to township officials, Kean’s debt continues to grow as enrollment at the university decreases. “Their debt service has grown exponentially in 10 years while enrollment has dropped,” said Antonelli. “They have overdeveloped to the point that they owe $330 million dollars in debt service. You just need to look at the campus to see it. And Kean is not subject to our ordinances, therefore we have traffic on Morris Avenue.”

Township officials report that they, representatives of Russo Development, and representatives from Kean University have never sat down together to conduct negotiations over the property. This is an issue which they believe is leading to an incorrect understanding of the township’s position.

As of press time, Russo Acquisitions was unavailable for comment.
Ron Manzella, the township’s business administrator, said that there is serious concern over Kean’s attempt in acquiring the property “The Township’s position has not changed,” said Manzella. “The concerns that are still present are ratables and the exorbitantly high traffic in and around the university.”

Township officials expressed opposition to being held hostage to a demand of land ownership by the university that the court has already ruled upon.
“One of the alternatives to these negotiations would be to simply allow this case to finish working its way through the court system. In order for any settlement to be considered, further information needs to be factored into this equation,” said Manzella.

Before coming to any sort of agreement, the township wants to review the report in order to determine whether Kean University can move forward with their plans to build, as well as determining whether Kean can realistically follow through with their proposal.

Representatives from the township said that they will continue to advocate in the interests of their residents and hope that a negotiation can take place so that all parties can be on equal footing and steps can be made toward an amicable resolution.

“The bottom line is that we need to look out for our taxpayers,” said Figueiredo. “That is a tax-paying property. And traffic there can be atrocious. That small little track can take 30 minutes to navigate, and three out of five traffic lights there encompass the Kean University stretch.”

Manzella said that residents have complained about myriad issues related to the campus. “We get complaints from residents who live there,” Manzella said. “You’re not a good neighbor when you build lights on a field and keep them on all night,” he said, referring to complaints from nearby residents who claim that athletic field lights disturb them during the night.

Figueiredo said that the instability of Kean’s finances, in addition to dropping enrollment, is a real concern. “There is lower enrollment, there are financial issues,” said Figueiredo. “Kean University is doing what they want and taking away land from our taxpayers without asking us to come to the table and discuss it.”

Kean spokesperson Margaret McCorry said that the University was unable to comment during ongoing litigation.