Morristown’s planning board on Thursday scuttled a five-story apartment project pitched by a company affiliated with the board’s former attorney, who is facing jail time in a corruption scandal.
The board cited a zoning change, new traffic patterns and unmet approval conditions in denying the BAKOD Holding Corporation’s request for a third one-year extension. The project–38 units and ground-floor retail–was approved in July 2018 for 45 Morris St., a vacant lot next to the Grasshopper Off the Green tavern.
No mention was made of Matt O’Donnell, listed as BAKOD’s president on legal documents dating as far back as 2007. (“BAKOD” comprises initials from the name of his late mother.)
O’Donnell served as planning board counsel during that period, then handled tax appeals for the town until 2018.
He pleaded guilty last year in connection with a bribery scheme to secure lucrative legal work in several municipalities, and faces three years in prison for conspiring to commit official misconduct and tamper with public records. His sentencing, adjourned several times, is anticipated for early 2023.
EASEMENTS AND ROUNDABOUTS
Approved projects that do not proceed to construction can seek three extensions before they must re-apply.
Planning board member Joe Kane, running Thursday’s virtual meeting in the absence of Chairman Joe Stanley, suggested BAKOD should start over with plans that reflect how the neighborhood has changed since 2018.
Those changes include a re-zoning for lower building heights and less density, and construction of a traffic roundabout at Morris and Spring streets as part of the M Station office redevelopment.
The roundabout has altered traffic patterns on Morris and Wilmot streets, and eliminated a Morris Street parking space that BAKOD intended to use as a loading area.
“I’ve been on this board for over 20 years. I’ve never seen a project go four years, and it’ll be five by the time your next extension runs out, if the board were to approve it,” Kane said.
“At some point, with so many changes…it really is in the town’s best interest for you to come back with a new application.”
Arguing for a final extension, BAKOD attorney Paul Jemas cited the pandemic, the Morristown Parking Authority’s stalled plans for a nearby parking deck, and jurisdictional discrepancies with Morristown and Morris County for delays in obtaining permits and starting construction.
Jemas termed the board’s denial “unreasonable,” asserting members’ concerns could be resolved. He said the new zoning ordinance changed a BAKOD easement without his client’s consent. Town and county officials pointed fingers at each other when asked why BAKOD was not consulted, Jemas said.
Town Planner Phil Abramson listed an assortment of unresolved approval conditions in a 34-page report to the board.
“As the community evolves, as the regulations and zoning evolve, at what point do old approvals no longer have their place?” Abramson asked. Board Attorney John Miller said the answer was up to the board.
The vote was 5-0, with Kane and veteran member Debra Gottsleben joined by Marisa Sweeney, Chris Russo and Andrea Lekberg, who were appointed to their unpaid positions after BAKOD’s 2018 approval.
Mayor Tim Dougherty recused himself.