Jackson residents blamed by township attorney, mayor as town settles lawsuit with Jackson Trails

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JACKSON TOWNSHIP, NJ – The Jackson Township Council and Mayor Michael Reina on Tuesday night agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by a developer seeking to build a residential project. In the agreement, the town will pay Jackson Trails’ legal fees of about $700,000 and will grant approval to the construction project previously denied by the planning board.

Jackson Township attorney Gregory P. McGuckin blamed the settlement on comments made by the public during the planning board hearings that were “antisemitic”, saying those comments not only hurt the town on this application but in other legal matters.

“The Jackson Trails matter, had it just been a land-use case, had it just been a denial of an application, would have been resolved some time ago and would have been resolved in a much more favorable manner for Jackson Township,” McGuckin said Tuesday night. “Unfortunately because of comments made during that hearing, and comments that were made from the public, it provided the developer the opportunity to use those comments to take that simple land use case and turn it into a religious discrimination matter.”

McGuckin did not reference which comments by the community were used against the township in the lawsuit.

Later in the meeting, McGuckin would reverse that opinion and declare the case would have been overturned without the alleged comments from the public having been made.

According to the lawsuit, “During the course of the hearing, it became evident that questions and comments by board members and local residents were veiled discussions of issues relating to the Orthodox Jewish community.”

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The lawsuit never quoted any anti-Semitic comments from residents, but attorney Brent R. Pohlman said that doesn’t matter as the comments were taken in context to mean they were aimed at Orthodox Jews in the lawsuit.

Residents at the hearing asked questions about basement rentals, impacts of school busing and congestion for the most part, according to planning board meeting minutes on file with the township and the lawsuit.

“Upon information and belief, local residents and Township officials are concerned that members of the Orthodox Jewish community would illegally use their basements as rentals for Orthodox Jews,” the lawsuit continued. “

McGuckin said when residents expressed their opinions during the planning board hearings, the developer was able to pursue other avenues of the judicial system in order to present a civil rights violation before the federal government.

“That changes that law that applies, that changes the remedies that are available. It changes the damages that can be sought and I would simply indicate that as we go forward in this town that those kinds of comments do not help the township, it only ends up hurting the township,” McGuckin said. “People have the right to feel however they want, but when they make those comments at a public hearing, the entire town is painted with that brush and when it comes to a federal judge. When he hears those comments it assumes those comments reflect the will of the people in the town.”

“That has placed the township in this case and others in difficult positions,” McGuckin said.

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Attorney Pohlman said if those comments were never made, the applicant would never have been able to bring the case to federal court for a civil rights violation matter.

Later McGuckin, who presided over the trial said the case would have been overturned in court even without the comments from the public, reversing his previous statement blaming the public.

Jackson Mayor Michael Reina also blamed residents’ comments during the township’s planning board approval process for being used against the township in a lawsuit filed by the Jackson Trails LLC developer.

“I said it before, I cannot sit up here and say everything comes out of my mouth is going to ring the right way,” Reina said. “There are too many differences of opinions. The entities that are suing the township, and once it’s settled, everyone will see who they are. Ya, passions are going to come out on both sides. We’re not telling anyone they can’t have a first amendment. We want people to voice their opinions, but do it in a way that doesn’t take away from what the end game is. You all talk about we want this and we want that.”

Joseph Sullivan, a Reina ally. who served on the planning board at the time said he denied the project because of environmental concerns, applauded the settlement and chastised residents.

“We cannot deny the fact that people made outrageous and unreasonable comments on the public record that hurt this town,” Sullivan testified Tuesday night. “I heard it. Everybody heard it. It was wrong.” 

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