A battle may be brewing over the power to control zoning in Jersey City, at least if Ward E Councilman James Solomon has anything to say about it.
This follows last month’s decision by Jersey City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment giving controversial developer Peter Mocco a green light to move forward on a long-delayed project in the formerly Italian-American enclave Downtown known as the Village.
The decision, rendered at a hearing on July 22, allowed Mocco to move ahead with the project despite the fact that the Village Redevelopment Plan, which had been enacted in 1980, had expired. Jersey City’s zoning officer, Nick Taylor, had determined that Mocco had missed the May 2020 deadline to get approvals for a five story, 44-unit building at 303 1st Street.
In an April 2021 letter, Taylor told Mocco that his project would “require an amendment to the plan removing or extending the expiration date.” According to statute, redevelopment plans can only be created or amended by the city council.
Mocco, the developer of Liberty Harbor North, was the subject of a four part series in Jersey City Times earlier this year.
Solomon accused the board of “bending over backwards to aid a developer who defaulted on his obligation to build at the site at First and Coles over 35 years ago.” Noting that he was two years old when Mocco first obtained the right to build there, Solomon said Mocco had been given a “free pass.”
The project appears to be a classic Mocco affair, replete with colorful litigation and overt rule bending. Mocco was first designated the redeveloper of the property in 1985 and was given approximately two years to complete the project. Twenty years passed and Mocco still hadn’t begun construction.
In 2015, Mocco sued the owner of 303 First Street, the final and fourth parcel needed for the project, claiming that the owner had breached a contract to sell the property. In response, the owner, an elderly man who spoke little English, said that, as an alcoholic with a sixth-grade education and an illness that “altered his judgment and comprehension,” he had been legally incompetent to enter into the deal in the first place. He claimed that Mocco’s agents had followed and physically assaulted him. Whatever the truth of the claims and counterclaims, by 2018, the lawsuit had been settled and the property’s longtime commercial tenant, Hudson County Art Supplies was decamping to Central Avenue.
The building would soon be demolished and the parcels converted to a parking lot.
With all four properties in his possession, Mocco finally had what he needed to proceed. But he apparently did little despite the fact that two years later, in May 2020, the Village Redevelopment Plan would expire. And, indeed, when the RDP did expire, Mocco had yet to submit his plans for approval, let alone break ground.
Jersey City’s planners were acutely aware of the expiration problem. In November 2020, they brought the issue to the City Council, hoping to eliminate the deadlines altogether.
“It’s causing a lot of confusion; a lot of chaos, and I believe it will ultimately result in litigation at some point,” said Diana Jeffrey, executive director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Authority.
Arguing that the RDP expirations left the areas without any zoning at all, Director of Planning Tanya Marione added, “[A developer] has the right to know what their property is zoned for.”
Solomon pushed back on the elimination of all expirations. “There’s nothing stopping counsel from JCRA from working to remove dates on individual plans as they see fit.”
Instead, he argued, the city could obtain valuable “give-backs” from developers “worth millions” by re-writing the redevelopment plans.
Council President Joyce Watterman also recognized what was at stake were the deadlines to be eliminated.
“This is a concern … a serious concern … the Planning Board’s hands are tied … and the council has a concern because … we don’t want to lose our leverage,” she said.
The ordinance was tabled for further discussion.
True to form, Mocco moved ahead on his own. In March, he filed his application for a zoning determination with Taylor, who rejected it because it was late. On April 21, Mocco appealed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
At the July 22 hearing, Mocco was represented by his regular land-use attorney James McCann. McCann called professional planner Edward Kolling as a witness. Kolling argued that even if the redevelopment plan had lapsed, a zoning map and ordinance that had been adopted by the City Council in 2001 made the redevelopment plan’s zoning the zoning for the area.
The Board of Adjustment bought the argument and overturned Taylor’s decision, sending instructions to the Planning Board that the expired redevelopment plan’s zoning would remain in effect.
Said one Board of Adjustment member “I can’t see why you wouldn’t develop the last piece of property there … if you own it, go ahead and develop it.”
Chairman Joshua Jacobs added, “I don’t know if chaos would ensue [with no zoning], but it would be illogical for there to be any other conclusion.”
Marione called the issue “difficult” but supported the Board taking action. “We’ve gone to the City Council twice.”
Rutgers law professor Charles Auffant called the situation where it is alleged that zoning has ceased to exist, “interesting.” He cautioned that “the law abhors a vacuum.” As an alternative, Auffant said the Board of Adjustment “could have delayed its decision pending council action.”
Eric Hofmann, President of the Village Neighborhood Association lashed out at the Board’s decision. “It is beyond perplexing that the Zoning Board would take it upon themselves to effectively implement policy and overturn the previous decision regarding the expiry of the Village RDP [Redevelopment Plan] … The whole thing smacks of a backroom deal.”
Solomon said that he “was exploring any and all options to stop this travesty from proceeding.”