Borough trying to confiscate Willow Street site, lawsuit says
NorthJersey.com USA TODAY NETWORK – NEW JERSEY
A squabble between a property owner and the borough of Wood-Ridge over a small patch of ground has resulted in a federal lawsuit against the borough.
The owner of Willow Street Properties is suing Wood-Ridge and its borough engineering firm, Neglia Engineering Associates, and others, accusing them of unlawfully confiscating his property.
The property at the end of Willow Street was sold by the borough to Willow Street Properties, LLC (then known as Willow Properties) in August 1990 for $19,000, according to the suit. It had been a “paper street,” but was vacated as a right of way by the borough in the mid-1970s.
Then, in September 2020, the property owner noticed the borough had paved a 24-foot-by-40-foot section of the property for a rear entrance and exit for its Department of Public Works, according to the suit.
The public works building sits on the adjoining property.
Vehicles were parked on the newly paved area, and underground utilities were installed for the public works building, the suit states.
Error in survey
The misuse of the property by the borough, Willow Street Properties contends, was the fault of Neglia Engineering, the town’s engineering firm since 1987, which “erroneously depicted” the property as part of the public works property in a 2015 survey.
In email exchanges, the borough said it was unaware the property was vacated and transferred, and that it never showed up when the property was surveyed. The borough then requested an easement but provided no payment, Willow Street Properties alleges, so the company declined.
According to court documents, Willow Street Properties offered to lease the parking area for $600 a month, which was rejected by Wood-Ridge.
Then, last December, the council passed a resolution seeking to get a portion of the property via eminent domain rather than “correct what was recognized as an error by the borough,” the lawsuit states.
Borough administrator Chris Eilert said Wednesday that the suit was “without merit” and that it was outrageous that a federal lawsuit was filed over a “20-foot strip of grass that’s not worth $20,000.”
Steven Schepis, attorney for Willow Street Properties, has sent a letter to both Eilert and the borough attorney, asking to return the property to how it was before, as they were trespassing. Dennis Gleason is representing Willow Street Properties in the lawsuit.
Eilert said the borough needs an emergency exit for public works employees and equipment when Berry’s Creek floods the other entrance on Concord Street. He said the borough has been engaging “in honest negotiations for over two years.”
“The owner has refused every attempt and reasonable offer to consider an easement or a sale or anything,” Eilert said, “That would just be considered being a good neighbor and a good citizen.”
Eilert said what makes the lawsuit “especially egregious” is that when Willow Street Properties constructed its building 40 years ago, it encroached on borough property by 3 feet. The borough administrator said that instead of forcing the owner to demolish the brand new building, they sold him the strip of grass.
Gleason said the resolution to initiate eminent domain came “out of the blue.”
Eilert said the council sought that option only because the property owner would not “consider any reasonable offers for an easement” and the use of the land as an emergency exit for a public building is “the definition of a public purpose.”
Gleason said the owner has plans for the property and was being offered less for the property than what he paid 30 years ago. “He pointed out what they did wrong and then they continue to fight him and resist their mistake,” Gleason said.
Borough Clerk Gina Affuso said the town was served on Tuesday, and she forwarded it to the borough administrator, borough attorney and land use attorney.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @KaitlynKanzler8