Due to our ongoing coverage, the Essex Watch has been barraged with requests for documents and information pertaining to the Terry/Cortlandt Street residential development project in Belleville. Yes I know, it’s entirely my own fault.
To help facilitate these inquiries efficiently and to raise awareness of the issue, we are building this page to share the resources we have compiled with the public, the media, and other interested parties.
This page will be continually updated as events unfold and we release more information. More traditional narrative articles will follow separately.
UPDATE (4/1): We are in the process of gathering and adding links to all of the local news coverage of this deal as well.
On the evening of January 13, 2015, while hundreds of Belleville residents were packed into the High School auditorium and listening in shock while CPA Jeffrey Bliss revealed the school district’s outrageous $4 million budget deficit, developer Dennis McNeil of ABSG 110 LLC appears before the Belleville Town Council at a public meeting that was scheduled for the same night. McNeil proposes a plan to build 158 market-rate rental apartments on an industrial lot at the corner of Joralemon and Cortlandt Street.
He is represented by attorney Frank Cozzarelli, reportedly the cousin of sitting Belleville Councilman Vincent Cozzarelli.
The applicant asks the governing body to declare the already-productive industrial property “an area in need of redevelopment”, and to be given a PILOT, a form of long-term tax abatement. According to the Township’s own meeting minutes, the applicant testifies that if the project were subject to conventional taxation, banks would not loan him the necessary financing.
“But for some alliance with the town, such as a PILOT agreement, this project will not exist,” the transcript reads.
What we have witnessed firsthand and documented over the last two years since this initial meeting has been one violation after another of the public trust (if not the law) by the Belleville Council and other public officials involved in this highly contentious residential development deal worth an estimated $28 million.
All documents listed here were provided directly by Belleville Township via requests for public records submitted under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA). Resolutions and ordinances follow in the timeline below this section.
Belleville Council Meeting Minutes – Jan 13, 2015
Redevelopment Study and Preliminary Investigation Report – CME Associates, Aug 21, 2015
Redevelopment Plan – CME Associates, Nov 4, 2015
Proposed Apartment Plans (hi-res) – TMR Associates, May 25, 2016
Property Ownership and Tax Data – Ginseng UP as owner, then Ginseng UP retains a 35% ownership stake, with 65% for the redeveloper. Ginseng UP is reported to be one of many U.S. subsidiaries of a global corporation owned by the Unification Church, lead by the family of the late controversial Korean religious figure Sun Myung Moon.
Redeveloper Agreement – Dec 19, 2016
Financial Agreement and Tax Exemption – Dec 19, 2016
Resolutions, Ordinances, and Public Meeting Videos
Below is a chronological look at the major actions undertaken by the Belleville Council and Planning Board regarding the Terry/Cortlandt redevelopment project.
Click the hyperlinks below to view each resolution or ordinance. Where available, the public meeting video for each event is also provided.
Jan 13, 2015 – Council Meeting Minutes – Developer Dennis McNeil and his legal counsel, Frank Cozzarelli, appear before the Belleville Council and pitch the Terry/Cortlandt Street development.
Note: Video of this Council meeting is not available, as we were filming the Board of Education’s infamous financial audit that evening. These are full minutes of that meeting provided by the Township.
Feb 10, 2015 – Resolution #15-19 – The Council directs the Planning Board to investigate the Terry/Cortlandt Street study area as “an Area in Need of Redevelopment” (AINOR).
Note: Councilman Vincent Cozzarelli voted on this resolution while Frank Cozzarelli, reportedly his own cousin, was the attorney for the developer. Despite the apparent conflict of interest, Councilman Cozzarelli has continued to actively participate in and vote on this matter throughout the entire process.
Attorney Frank Cozzarelli was later disbarred in May of 2016 for knowingly misappropriating client funds.
Oct 8, 2015 – PB-2015-04 – The Planning Board holds a public hearing, takes the testimony of professional planner CME Associates who presents their Preliminary Investigation of the Study Area, then votes on a recommendation to the Council that the property be declared an AINOR.
Note: As can be seen in the video below, the representative from CME Associates was not sworn in prior to giving his expert testimony and professional opinion that the study area indeed met the criteria for redevelopment under the LHRL. Strangely members of the public were required to be sworn in despite the fact that they were not offering an expert opinion of any kind.
Also note that Planning Board Chairman Raymond Veniero repeatedly states that no plans are available. This becomes important later.
Just 27 days later on November 4, a Redevelopment Plan is completed by CME Associates. This is nine months before the Council has even gone through the process properly and declared the site an area in need of redevelopment.
Nov 12, 2015 – PB-2015-04 – The Planning Board memorializes the resolution to the Council from the Oct 8 meeting recommending that the Cortlandt/Terry Street property be designated an AINOR.
It’s important to closely observe this 13-minute Planning Board meeting, for a number of reasons.
This meeting is a prime example of how crucial information is repeatedly not shared among all PB members, and resolutions are missing from packets ahead of a vote. Members are expected to take action, yet some do not always have enough information to render an informed vote on critical matters, including the potential use of eminent domain on another site by the Township.
Owners: ‘Don’t kick us out’ (The Observer)
Aug 9, 2016 – Resolution #16-193 – Having received the Planning Board’s recommendation, the Council designates the property a “Non-Condemnation Area in Need of Redevelopment”.
Note: “Non-Condemnation” means that eminent domain or the forceful taking of property by the Township will not be exercised. In reality, such a declaration is no peace of mind for the property owners impacted, as the process to later convert it to a “Condemnation” area and move ahead with taking property is far from difficult.
In addition, although Mayor Kimble and the Council have repeatedly denied that eminent domain is a possible course of action in this development, and have assured both the public and Cortlandt Street residents on the record that their homes would not be taken, a specific provision found in the Redeveloper Agreement allows them to do exactly that, at will.
Sept 13, 2016 – Ordinance #3455 – The Council adopts the Redevelopment Plan.
Note: The Redevelopment Plan was completed by CME Associates on Nov 4, 2015. That is 9 months before the Council actually declared the property in need of redevelopment.
Oct 25, 2016 – No related action taken, but Cortlandt Street resident Diane Rothwell presents numerous problems and concerns, and rightfully blasts the Council for ignoring the continued pleas of residents and public advocates to stop this highly questionable project.
Dec 19, 2016 – Resolution #16-316 – The Council approves the Redeveloper Agreement between the Township and 91 Terry Street Urban Renewal LLC.
Dec 19, 2016 – Ordinance #3467 (first reading) – The Council moves forward with the Financial Agreement and Tax Exemption (PILOT) for the Terry/Cortlandt redevelopment.
Jan 24, 2017 – Ordinance #3467 (attempted second reading) – As the Council attempts to complete the second reading and final passage of the Financial Agreement and Tax Exemption, resident Phyllis Frantantoni confronts the Council during the public hearing on an illegal provision found in their Redeveloper Agreement. The Council, town attorney, and town manager admit on the public record that this provision is indeed illegal and unenforceable, though they completely disavow any knowledge of how it got into their own legal contract.
It is important to note that the Council had already voted on and approved this contract 5 weeks earlier. The entire governing body didn’t know the contract contained an elaborate political perk to their own benefit? How did it get there?
As a result of this “revelation”, the Financial Agreement ordinance is tabled.
Confrontation over illegal provision (6 minutes):
Full meeting video:
Valley project stalled (The Observer)
Feb 14, 2017 – The Council’s “It’s Only A Draft” Excuse – There was no Council action on the Terry/Cortlandt Street project at this meeting. However, the governing body collectively gave such a ludicrous excuse as to why we discovered an illegal provision in their already-approved Redeveloper Agreement, it deserves special mention here. This is the Council’s textbook go-to play when they suddenly find themselves cornered or caught in an embarrassing position.
In response to this claim that the documents we acquired directly from the Township via OPRA were somehow “drafts” instead of current valid copies of the records we asked for, we filed a subsequent expanded OPRA request to obtain them.
More than 4 weeks later, the Township has strangely not complied with our OPRA to provide final copies of these agreements they formally passed months ago. If this was simply a mistake or misunderstanding as they claim, why the continued evasiveness? Why the refusal to cooperate with a statutory records request?
Feb 28, 2017 – Ordinance #3467 (second reading and final passage) – Despite being caught with a blatantly illegal provision in a contract they already approved, the Belleville Council takes no public action to step back and re-advertise a corrected Redeveloper Agreement, perform another vote, or in any way remediate the process that is now even more flawed and unsavory.
Instead, the Council continues speeding forward as if nothing ever happened. They vote on final approval for the Financial Agreement and Tax Exemption for the developer. The vote passes 5-2. Councilmen Kennedy and Notari are the only ones who oppose the ordinance.
Note: Two of the five councilmembers who voted to approve this ordinance (Burke and Longo) are not physically present at the meeting, and phoned in their votes.
Update: Here is another OPRA’d copy of the Financial Agreement ordinance with the Township’s notarized advertisement from Dec 29, 2016 included – Ordinance 3467 with Advertisement
The highlighted text demonstrates that the language in the advertisement of the ordinance to the public is materially and substantially different than the ordinance that was actually passed by the Belleville Council.
Residents laud paraders, decry project (The Observer)
Was Belleville PILOT ordinance properly advertised? (NorthJersey.com)
More to come as this saga unfolds.
State Comptroller’s Municipal Tax Abatement Study (Matthew Boxer, 2010)