Examiner – Jane Meggit.
UPPER FREEHOLD – A neighboring landowner has alleged that the developer of a 60-unit subdivision on Emley’s Hill Road may have told employees to remove the nests of a threatened hawk from the site.
Ronald Taft, who lives next door to the Emley’s Hill Road development, notified the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Sept. 27 that one of PRC Development/ Oak Tree Development LLC’s former employees has alleged that the developer “intentionally misled the Planning Board and lied to the DEP in connection with issues concerning the presence of Cooper’s hawks in the wetlands of the property and the presence and removal of the nests” from wetlands on lots four and five of the approved subdivision.
Taft has alleged that after he brought the Cooper’s hawks’ nests presence on the property to the attention of the DEP and the township’s Planning Board, the developer told its former employee, an outside contractor, and other employees to find and remove the nests. Taft has further alleged that employees were told not just to remove the two reported nests but also to remove all nests from the site so none would be there when the DEP and Planning Board investigated the property.
Taft said the former employee and possibly others who removed the nests would testify as long as they received immunity from prosecution.
In 2004, Taft told Planning Board members that local residents had seen Cooper’s hawks and their nests in the area where construction of the Galloping Hills subdivision was supposed to take place.
At that time, a neighboring resident, Christine D’Arienzo, located the nests in the western wetlands of the site and photographed them. She had birding expert Fred Lesser visit the site, view the nests, and write a report. The report was submitted Oct. 26, 2004, to the PRC Group in West Long Branch and its engineer, Birdsall Engineering, in Eatontown.
Taft soon after sent a letter to the developer’s ecological consultants. The letter stated that he and D’Arienzo visited the site on Nov. 7, 2004, and that “it was clear that someone had climbed the two northern
red oak trees in which the nests were located and removed and destroyed the nests.”
Laurence S. Torok, principal environmental specialist of the DEP, sent a letter Nov. 22, 2004 to Birdsall Engineering stating that zoologists in the DEP’s Endangered and Non-game Species Program (ENSP) had evaluated the reported sightings of the Cooper’s hawk and found them legitimate.
Amanda Dey, a senior biologist at the ENSP, wrote in a June 25, 2005, letter that the main documentation of Cooper’s hawks breeding on the site came from a March 2003 survey and report from Wander Ecological Consulting, the developer’s former environmental consultant.
Dey and David Moskowitz, of EcolSciences, the developer’s new environmental consultant, scheduled a series of five visits to the site beginning in late March and ending in late April 2005.
On April 28, Dey and Moskowitz surveyed the site together, according to Dey’s report, but her loudspeaker for call playback was not functioning properly. She and Moskowitz made vocalizations of Cooper’s hawks and their predator, the great horned owl, while walking the site to elicit responses from breeding Cooper’s hawks, but found no evidence of adult birds or breeding. Her report further stated that Moskowitz had visited the site on his own and noted that the adult female Cooper’s hawk had not been sighted in the wooded wetland at the southwest corner of the site but had been observed on the southeast corner in a different wooded wetland.
At the Oct. 18 Township Committee meeting, resident Marc Covitz brought up Taft’s concerns. Mayor Stephen Fleischacker said members of the governing body and Planning Board were aware of Taft’s allegations.
Township Attorney Granville Magee called Taft a very good lawyer and said he would know that he must contact the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office to pursue the issue.
Committeeman Stephen Alexander, also an attorney, said that the Township Committee does not have the ability to grant those who testify immunity from prosecution. He added that perjury cases are often difficult to prove because the first question a lawyer asks is if the witness previously admitted to lying.
PRC Group Senior Vice President and General Counsel Robert McGowan wrote in a Nov. 2 letter to Magee that the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court unanimously affirmed a May 2 trial court’s dismissal of Taft’s allegations.
Judge Alexander Lehrer’s original decision cited a transcript of the Oct. 26, 2004, Planning Board meeting, in which Board Attorney Frank Armenante stated that the issue of whether the buffer should be changed due to the existence of endangered species habitation would be left up to the DEP.
McGowan called Covitz’s comments at the Oct. 18 Township Committee meeting “merely an echo of the arguments that have been argued and decided several times over the past three years.”
Taft said he has not heard from any township officials about the matter.
“The silence is deafening,” he said.
Taft said he has plans to bring a civil action lawsuit against the developer at the appropriate time. He added that the township could insist on investigating the matter.
“If people feel that they can submit inaccurate information and no one cares, what does that say about the process?” he asked. “What good is the process if it is OK to just make up a story? If you do that, and get caught, and it’s all OK, what happened to the process?”
Taft said the inaction of the Township Committee sends a message that it does not care if people mislead the governing bodies.
McGowan sent an Oct. 31 letter to Taft stating that Taft’s assertions regarding perjury before the Planning Board could not be substantiated by any facts or other corroborating information known to the PRC Group. The letter further states that the PRC Group reported “a former employee” to the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office for attempting to “illegally extort remuneration from our companies based on his threat to report to the ‘appropriate authorities’ certain alleged activities in which he claims to have participated in while an employee of the PRC Group and in regard to the Galloping Hills development property.”
McGowan’s letter continues, “Inasmuch as said employee was the beneficiary of substantial financial incentives, which were directly linked to the number of buildable lots that were ultimately approved, and since to date said employee is the only person or entity to have realized any financial gain from the approval of the subject development project, I suggest that the exercise of an appropriate amount of cautious skepticism as to the motivation and credibility of his assertions may prove to be warranted.”