Developer claims Morristown reneged on Speedwell apartment deal, threatens lawsuit

Developer Paul Marshall, left, and attorneys Linda Kahn and Philip Rosenbach told the council that Morristown has reneged on a 2015 contract. The town denies the allegation. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Morristown’s council is accustomed to presentations from developers pitching big projects.

But this week, council members heard from one who is threatening to sue because he claims he cannot get an audience.

“We have essentially given up on the town officials. We’re no longer willing to be dillied around with and toyed around with. We drafted up a complaint. We’re now asking the town council to honor this agreement,” said attorney Linda Kahn.

She and Morristown lawyer Philip Rosenbach represent Paul Marshall, a local real estate developer who says he and Claremont Properties of Far Hills have been getting stonewalled since 2015 on their proposal to build a four-story, 83-unit apartment complex and 8,000 square feet of retail space, as part of Morristown’s Speedwell Avenue redevelopment.

The attorneys on Tuesday gave Morristown four months to make good on a January 2015 agreement to review these plans. Otherwise, they intend to sue in federal court for breach of contract.

Town Administrator Jillian Barrick labeled the charges as “clearly just mischaracterizations of the facts and the legal obligations of the town and the agreement.

“Because of this pending litigation, I’ll leave it at that. We have our redevelopment counsel that is reviewing and preparing a response. And once we have an update
for that, we’ll update the council on that,” Barrick said.

Councilwoman Alison Deeb asked to get that briefing at the Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019, redevelopment meeting. The council is scheduled to hear updates at 7 o’clock that night about M Station, a major office project separate from the Speedwell project.

Marshall’s proposal was envisioned as Phase III of the Speedwell redevelopment. The first two phases–453 apartments in buildings called Modera 44 and Modera 55–and Phase IV, a CVS pharmacy, have been completed by other developers.

Rosenbach said “hundreds of thousands of dollars” have been spent on “world-class engineers” for Phase III plans that would “enhance and beautify this town” with apartments on about three-quarters of an acre at Speedwell and Clinton Place, near the Modera buildings.

This process began after Marshall granted an easement giving temporary access from his properties on Speedwell Avenue to the Modera site, facilitating that construction, according to Rosenbach.

Morristown town Administrator Jillian Barrick, left, tells council that developer has “mischaracterized” a 2015 agreement. Assistant town Attorney Joni McDonnell listens, Aug. 6, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In exchange, the town and the Morristown Parking Authority signed a January 2015 agreement to “”immediately, continuously, timely without unreasonable delay, diligently work in good faith with our client, to allow our client to submit a plan and get it approved and work with the town council to enter into a redevelopment plan,”  Kahn told the council.

But the ink barely was dry, the lawyers allege, when the town began “barraging” Marshall with summonses for maintenance issues they contend were the responsibility of Modera’s developers.

Without consulting with Marshall’s team, the council also scaled back the Phase III redevelopment to allow only 24 units, instead of 150 as initially discussed, his side alleges.

Efforts to secure an official designation as the Phase III redeveloper have proven frustrating, Rosenbach said.

“It has been one niggling cut after another, one rejection after another. And it’s been unending,” he said.

A January 2019 letter outlining these concerns to town officials got no response, according to Rosenbach.

“We would like to know that we have been heard. We would like to know, in fairly short order, that the town is willing to work with us. Because it leaves a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth to say that we have wasted four years for nothing, and to just have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for nothing,” the attorney told the council.

Uncertainty over Phase III has contributed to delays in constructing a park that was promised as part of the Modera projects, according to a measure adopted on Tuesday.

The council authorized paying up to $71,500 to Dewberry Engineers Inc. to create a “usable green space” as an interim park.

Marshall’s company, Marshall & Moran, has developed Morristown properties including the Swiss Chalet bakery and a Remax office. Claremont Properties, meanwhile, is seeking town approvals to erect another apartment complex, on Schuyler Place.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Calling an entrance to a parking garage, a plaza and adding 10 feet to a busy sidewalk to accommodate a 1,00 new workers is not what I consider open space, especially when that side walk is now expected to be used by bikers, unable to use the proposed round a bout at the intersection.
    , Seems as though our mysterious posters with no last names continue to call others corrupt when their own motives are not clear. My mother used to call this the “pot calling the kettle black”

  2. Sidenote- look at Market/Bank

    Dilapidated, vacant and ugly buildings— now a beautiful office building, gorgeous apartments and a nice hotel coming. Great change for Morristown

  3. Many people consistently object to any new development and long for the good old days of Morristown from the late 80s and early 90s, when downtown was a ghost town and full of vacant and dilapidated buildings.

  4. @ Faith – you seem quite confident of a large upcoming tax increase. Are you sure this is the case? If your property value went up 50k in the past 10 years because of the development, and your taxes based on this went up 1k, are you better or worse off? In addition, I think the overall tax problem is much more a state level spending problem than a local one imo here.

  5. As William Needham said in his recent post, “How much longer are the residents of Morristown to be saddle with ever increasing taxes and municipal corruption in an era of unprecedented growth? While the council debates tree removal, I hope the residents are prepared for the 2020 property tax reassessment.”………..Not to worry, I’m sure that after all the growth of high rise, huge development buildings that the mayor and his boards have allowed all over in our town, property taxes will Surely Go Down !!….after all, the mayor keeps telling us such developments will help add to the tax base and that is wonderful thing…the mayor and his planner call it “smart growth”…We’ll see. how smart it is and how much the tax payers have been helped after the reassessment!!!

  6. @ Margret – I would consider the proposed building plazas and wide walkways more of a pedestrian “open space” than a parking lot in front of an outdated strip mall, no? Besides pointing out all the possible defects in the plans, and to be clear to residents, what is your bottom line proposal? Leave everything the way it is?

  7. Clearly some developers have carte blanche with Morristown leadership, hence the explosion of development with zero regard for traffic or quality of life, yet others with comprehensive plans are stonewalled. Same goes for Morristown businesses, some bar owners literally have rubber stamped approval for any growth/expansion plans, others are discriminated against for YEARS at taxpayer expense. Seems some folks just know how to grease the skids with the Mayor and Town Council, yet others haven’t found the secret sauce. No logic can explain why the discrepancies exist, so I’m betting there is an undocumented outside influence involved, as is often the case in NJ politics….follow the money.

  8. This should be an interesting meeting. On Tues. August 13th, at 7PM, in additions to the massive redevelopment of Burger King Plaza with the unique 3 sided traffic circle or round-a-bout, further consideration of the former proposal for a warehouse, then changed to a large “Live-Work” mixed use development further down Morris St. has been added to the agenda.

    All 3 projects have a direct impact on the traffic at the Speedwell, Spring and Morris Street intersections. All involve a major decrease in open space, with deceptive renderings of driveways and street trees depicted as though they are open space.
    So far there has been no indication that the Town has even considered the combined impact of several redevelopment projects in close proximity to each other or the rights of other developers to have their projects receive the same increases and favors. Could this be the reason so many other property owners in the area support the new proposals?

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