Anti-Valley expansion group Concerned Residents of Ridgewood (CRR) filed a lawsuit on Monday against the Ridgewood Planning Board and Valley Hospital in New Jersey Superior Court, alleging that the so-called "H-Zone" amendment is unlawful and also contradicts the objectives of the Village to maintain its character per the Master Plan.
Paul Gould, the spokesman for CRR, said in a statement that the Master Plan amendment–approved June 21st by the planning board amid protests and an arrest–is "simply wrong for Ridgewood, and the residents are asking the Court to reverse the decision."
"Valley has tried to circumvent the criteria that has been in the village for so long," he said.
"The hospital in its history has been overreaching. Nobody trusts the hospital to do what's right. They exploit every opportunity," he said and noted that there weren't other recourses but a lawsuit.
Valley Spokesperson Megan Fraser issued a statement in response to the suit. "It is disappointing that a small group of people, largely those who live in the hospital's neighborhood, are attacking the Village and its Planning Board to delay a project that will serve so many people of our region for years to come," she wrote to Patch via e-mail late Tuesday afternoon.
"After almost four years and 35 meetings that included exhaustive testimony, investigation and disclosure, the suit is an unfortunate step in the wrong direction."
Village Manager Ken Gabbert could not comment on the specific legal ramifications, but said typically the Village and Planning Board will have 35 days to respond to allegations. He also noted that the Village received the CRR's e-mail copy, but has not officially been served the paperwork.
The lawsuit may also delay the Village Council proceedings; the council is still without a fifth member after the passing of Councilwoman Anne Zusy. Mayor Killion said the council attorney, Matt Rogers, will be reviewing the merits of the case and advising the village on the matter.
"It's just a situation where we're going to have to consult the Village Attorney to see if it will affect the timeline," Killion said.
The "H-Zone" amendment would make significant changes to the size of the 15.4-acre Valley Hospital facility if approved by Village Council. Hospital mass would double to nearly 1.2 million square feet by the erection (and demolition) of several buildings (including a five-story structure), and setbacks would increase along borders.
The CRR had a 45 day window to file from the date the decision was published, Gould said, which was the reason for the lawsuit's timing, though the legal team spent significant time in preparing a case. CRR has retained attorney John L. Lamb of Montvale, NJ-based Beattie Padovano, to represent the opposition group; Lamb specializes in New Jersey municipal land use law.
The lawsuit alleges that there were 17 separate counts of wrongdoing by the planning board, among them: the board's notices was defective and insufficient; a public notice of the concept plan was not provided to adjacent property owners; the board failed to publish notice of the special meetings in two newspapers required under the Open Public Meetings Act; attendance was purposely limited by Village officials; the former mayor, David Pfund, had a conflict of interest (though the board found that to be untrue); the Vice Chairman also had a conflict and/or the appearance of impropriety (though he recused himself), as did others on the board; the zoning changes are unlawful, as they are "spot zoning" and "spot planning"; proposed multiple expansions "over 20 years" are invalid; among other charges.
In addition to not adequately notifying the public throughout the process and claiming that the zoning changes are unlawful, the suit also alleges that former mayor Pfund had serious conflicts of interests, and should not have had any involvement in the proceedings. The legal action charges that Pfund, an attorney, indicated that one of his representative clients was Valley hospital, and that the information indicating such on his law firm website was taken down.
The suit also states that Pfund's parents had close connections to Valley, notably that his father was a hospital trustee, and that's a violation of his involvement.
The suit further states that Vice Chair Albert Pucciarelli had a conflict of interest, which Pucciarelli told Patch was true via telephone on Tuesday. "That's why I recused myself," he said. Gould declined to comment on why Pucciarelli is mentioned; though he said the law in general concerns overall context, not just the final outcome.
In past statements, the CRR have said they're concerned about the quality of life in Ridgewood should the expansion, dubbed the "Valley Renewal Project," be authorized. They cite a concern with health issues from asbestos, long-term construction near schools, declining property values as a result of expansion, among others as notable opposition points.
"If expansion goes ahead, if you look at other places where these types of things have taken place...property values around the area will go down," Gould said.
He also alleged that the additional traffic along the corridor will also negatively impact property values and that "the tax base will go down forever."
The people who had purchased homes around the area, according to Gould, had looked at documents including the master plan, and there was no indication the hospital could expand with such precedent. They're now unable to sell their homes due to the looming issue.
While they like the hospital being there, the spokesman said they can't support a such a large expansion. He later said that in 2008, residents said they could at max support a 10-15% increase.
The planning board approved the amendment to expand the hospital by a 6-1 vote at a contentious hearing in June, which left hundreds of citizens unable to attend, and resulted in the arrest of one man. The voting members at the time said the amendment was improved from previous submitted plans, and member Charles Nalbantian called the amendment "important."
Others on the board listed various reasons for supporting that the amendment be reviewed by the village council, though the planning board has recommend that a comprehensive environmental study be done as well.
If the council is able to review the matter and disagrees entirely or in part with the amendment, it must declare what is "inconsistent with the Master Plan and spell out why it's inconsistent," according to Rogers. Council's justifications for objection must be "based on sound principle of zoning and planning," he said.
Village Council must eventually decide on an ordinance either approving, rejecting, or rejecting in part the Master Plan amendment.
Gould said he's confident the CRR has a good shot at winning this battle in court. "Unlike Valley, who currently has hundreds of millions of dollars in cash on hand to spend from profits made from the patients and their insurance companies, this lawsuit is being paid for by residents from their own pockets," he stated.
"We would not proceed if there was not a good chance of success."
Still, should the Village fight the matter, residents would still pay out of their own pockets, as residents pay for legal counsel retained by the village.
"Irrespective of what I might say or [Valley Hospital spokesperson] Megan Fraser might say...it's going to come down to the interpretation of the law based on what is right for the zone."
Planning Board Chair David Nicholson was not available for comment.