Is The Anti-Mall Movement Dead?
Leaders of the Committee To Stop Mahwah Mall talk their fight against the development so far, and what they hope the future holds
On March 31, 2011 three core members of the Committee to Stop Mahwah Mall say they thought their fight against a 600,000-square-foot shopping development in the township was over.
“When I saw that many people at the town council meeting fighting against the mall, I thought our fight would be over that night,” Joey Bourgholtzer, one of the founding members of the CSMM, told Patch. Mike Richards, another who helped organize the movement, agreed. “For me, I didn’t think it’d be going on this long, or it would be this hard.”
The Committee formed after the March 31 council meeting, when a 4-2 vote changed the zoning of the Crossroads property, surrounding the Sheraton Mahwah Hotel, to allow for retail development. The group expressed concerns about traffic, crime, and environmental impacts the construction of the ‘Crossroads Town Center’ might cause.
At its peak, the group gathered several hundred supporters at town meetings to question the prospect of the development, and got over 2,000 people to sign a petition asking for a referendum vote on the issue. Even though key members admit that active membership has “somewhat ebbed” in the anti-mall movement that has gone on for over a year in the township, “we still have a strong core,” Richards said. Generally at town meetings, the group will get 30 to 50 people attending. “But, if we had a call to arms and needed members to come out for something, I think we could get 150 people easy.”
Last May, the group sued the township in an attempt to invalidate the ordinance. In July, the CSMM circulated a petition asking for a non-binding referendum questioning whether or not township residents wanted the shopping center. The petition the group handed to the township had over 2,200 signatures on it, prompting the council to repeal the ordinances and put the question of the mall on the ballot.
Because the Crossroads Developer filed a site plan application one day before the ordinances were repealed, it proceeded through the township’s government. Officials at the time questioned whether or not the timing should be allowed under a new “Time of Decision” state law saying that developers are subject to zoning laws in effect at the time of submission of the site plan.
The Crossroads Developer filed a suit against the township in September, claiming the town council unlawfully rescinded the ordinances.
Let Patch save you time. Get local news delivered straight to your inbox or smartphone with our free daily newsletter. Sign up here.
In November, a little over 52 percent of the over 5,600 residents who voted on the issue said they did not support the development. Since it was non-binding, the vote did not have an impact on the development’s proceedings.
In January of this year, the township’s planning board began public hearings on the development.
The CSMM has been attending the hearings, questioning the board, updating the residents on its mailing list with news about Crossroads, and has been awaiting a decision in its court case. A court date in June has been canceled, and lawyers say a new one will be set this week. Bergen County Superior Court Judge Alexander Carver has consolidated the cases both the CSMM and the developer filed against the township, so both pending decisions will be made in one day.
Though the CSMM initially filed three counts against the town, it has whittled that down to one – a trial brief CSMM lawyer Michael Kates filed on behalf of the anti-mall group claims former town council president and mayor John DaPuzzo, who voted to introduce the ordinances while on the council and approved them as mayor, did so with a conflict of interest. The brief explains:
“First, Council President DaPuzzo’s wife, Dawn DaPuzzo, was the salaried Director of Recreation in Mahwah and was to benefit by the creation of recreational facilities to be administered by her. Second, Council President DaPuzzo is a founding Trustee and former “Corporate Development” Committee member of a charity, the Mahwah Schools Foundation, to which the developer contributed substantial sums over the course of several years, with the knowledge of Mr. DaPuzzo.”
“This is not anything personal against the DaPuzzos,” Kates told Patch. “We just feel that he should have recused himself, and that we have a very strong case.”
The lawyer said the group’s goal is to get the ordinances allowing for the mall declared invalid. “If the planning board approves the site application, this suit is the last hope [to stop the building of the mall],” Kates said.
According to Andrew Fede, the township attorney defending Mahwah in both suits, “we are defending the ordinance being valid. There is no conflict [of interest] in our view.”
Fede declined to comment on the township’s specific defense, saying that its trial briefs are not due until the beginning of June. “Basically, the judge will decide if there was a conflict or not.”
Jim Jaworski, the attorney working on behalf of the developer, said he will be “side by side to defend the action of the council” at the impending hearing, but not as a defendant. “The action is against the township, but we will be there as an interested party."
The CSMM members said they are optimistic about the outcome of the suit.
“We are realistic, and we’re not anti-development,” Richards said. “Our goal is still the lawsuit. We are hoping we win because we feel that the development should not have come about the way it did. And, if another development option is presented in the future, I would hope it would be up to a binding referendum vote, because it is just too big a decision that will affect the whole town to be made by such a small group of people.”
However, even if the group loses, representatives say they will continue to follow the development. “We want to at least make sure that there is responsible development there,” Richards said. “So, we would continue to go to planning board hearings, ask questions, and bring up our concerns. We think we are playing an important role.”
Group leader Susan Chin said the CSMM will also continue to post news about the development on its website. “One of the most important things we’ve been able to do with all of this is keep residents in town more aware,” she said. “We will keep doing that.”
Until the trial date, the group said it plans to keep fighting the development. “This is not over,” Bourgholtzer said. “There are a lot of unknowns here – the planning board approval of the site plan, the DEP’s clearing of the environmental situation at the site, the DOT’s approval of the traffic plan the developer is proposing, and the outcome of our lawsuit. I don’t think this is over, at all.”
She added, “No matter how this turns out, I think it’s a good thing we’ve done; we’ve made a lasting impression, and I am proud of that. I have absolutely no regrets.”
The members of the CSMM said they are still providing updates and collecting monetary donations at their website.