Lawsuit claims zoning board rulings in Union City favor mayor's backers

Lawsuit claims zoning board rulings in Union City favor mayor's backers

March 17, 2007 Star Ledger

For the second time in a year, Assemblyman and Union City Mayor Brian Stack has been accused in court papers of orchestrating rulings by the Union City Zoning Board to benefit his political supporters.

"Simply put, Zoning Board approvals are for sale," states the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Newark yesterday by Leonia developer Ralph Lieber. "Developers who contribute to the mayor's various war chests are rewarded with unanimous decisions for their projects. ... Those few dissenters who refuse to 'play the game' or those not savvy enough to even know the game is being played, risk almost certain rejection."

Stack, a Democrat, dismissed Lieber's complaints as "sour grapes" from a developer whose proposed construction project was rightly rebuffed.

"I just see this lawsuit as an out-of-town developer who's trying to ram an extremely large project down the throats of the people of Union City," Stack said.

The lawsuit arises from Lieber's unsuccessful efforts to win approval for an apartment building on the northwest corner of 8th Street and Palisade Avenue in Union City in 2005 and 2006.

After being rejected for his original plan to put 80 units on the site, Lieber scaled back his proposal to include 35 units in a six and a half story building, the lawsuit says. That plan also was rejected by a unanimous vote in December.

After that rejection, Lieber said, he found that votes in every one of 200 cases the board decided over six years was unanimous.

In addition, he compiled information, included in his lawsuit, that shows the city's most successful developers with cases before the zoning board contributed $146,000 to Stack's political and charitable campaigns in 2005 and 2006.

"In short, the mayor has exercised domination and control of a municipal agency, converting it to nothing more than a revenue raising device in order to enhance his own political and financial fortunes," the lawsuit states.

The state Schools Construction Corp. included similar claims of manipulation in a lawsuit filed a year ago to recoup portions of $1.48 million the state paid for an apartment building erected in the way of a proposed elementary school.

The apartment building, at 1501 Palisade Ave., was hastily erected after the long-vacant lot had been selected as the site of the proposed school.

The state claims the apartment building, which the schools corporation bought and tore down before it was ever occupied, was erected only to inflate the price the state had to pay for the property.

In the lawsuit, which is still pending, the SCC quoted a former zoning board member as saying Stack had directed board votes through an intermediary, and claimed specifically the board had been instructed to approve the 1501 Palisade project.

Stack denies any improper role in any zoning board decision.

"Do I have an opinion on projects in Union City? You bet your life I do," he said. "Do I go in and tell them how to vote? No. Absolutely not."

Stack has been at the center of political intrigue in Hudson County and Trenton this year, as he prepares to mount a campaign to unseat longtime Hudson County state Sen. Bernard F. Kenny Jr. (D-Hudson).

In addition, the state Attorney General's office is investigating $200,000 in state funding Stack secured for the Union City Day Care Center, a not-for-profit agency that employs his wife, Katia, as a $100,000-a-year director.

Stack has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the state funding.

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