On April 12, 2001, the Planning Board of Hamilton Township, New Jersey voted unanimously to approve a huge, 270 acre retail complex that will include 563,389 s.f. of retail development. The so-called Hamilton Marketplace reads like a Who’s Who in retailing: a Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, BJs, Lowe’s and a grocery store.Mayor Glen Gilmore can barely contain his excitement. Despite the fact that The Mercer County Times reported that “most residents spent more than an hour and a half of the public hearing objecting to the project,” the Mayor says “this is the biggest project ever to come to Hamilton.” And it has generated some of the biggest opposition in history to a retail project. A local citizen’s group called RAID (Residents Against Inappropriate Development) has created a website to publicize their objections to the plan. RAID explains: “We currently are opposing the Hamilton Marketplace, a huge regional shopping complex — proposed to be the largest in Mercer County (1.5 million square feet of big-box stores). This complex is to be built by JDN Realty Corporation, on a property consisting of over 270 acres, much of it comprised of farmlands and wetlands. The farmlands include sites of numerous Indian Artifacts, an old apple orchard, and an historic house and farmstead dating back to the 18th Century. The house is currently eligible for listing on the State and National Historic Register. Surrounding the house are numerous large trees including a 260-year old White Oak, the 3rd largest in Mercer County. The site is adjacent to agricultural areas planned for farmland preservation efforts in several counties and near the historic, small towns of Crosswicks and Allentown. A development of this size will have an extremely negative impact on this rural region, undermining preservation efforts and promoting sprawl. The site, formerly owned by the Diocese of Trenton, is located on Route 130 in Hamilton Twp., just south of Route 195. Described by Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, “as threatening to bring sprawl to a comparatively sleepy section of Route 130″, the Hamilton Marketplace made the Sierra Club’s exclusive list of the worst development projects in New Jersey.” Shortly after the Planning Board vote, RAID and the Central Jersey Sierra Club sued the township on environmental grounds, and over apparent conflicts of interest caused by the financial contributions made by the developer. On the environmental front, RAID claims JDN violated state and federal laws by clearing wetlands, and that the town failed to require JDN to clean up aresenic tained soil on the site. A District Court judge ruled that the Planning Board had to revote its April decision because of the appearance of conflict created by JDN’s contributions to the County Republican Party, to the Mayor, and to an engineering firm which employs one of the Planning Board members. JDN gave $1,500 to the campaign of Mayor Gilmore. The Mayor returned the money to JDN less than one month before he voted in favor of their plan. JDN also contributed $10,000 to the Mercer County Republicans, and in an expense list, the developer listed the contribution as “plan approval assistan” (sic). A JDN spokesman said the notation was “a clerical error”. Finally, JDN gave $6,000 to an engineering firm that employed one of the Planning Board members as a Vice President. RAID said the contribution amounted to “pecuniary financial gain” to the Planning Board member, in violation of state ethics law. The Judge ruled that the Board members must revote the issue, and sign affadavits stating that their votes were not affected by the “contributions.” The second vote is scheduled for June 13th. JDN has promised area residents that this mammoth development will have all kinds of bells and whistles, like a clock tower, benches, and even a nature trail. The Sierra Club just calls it “urban sprawl”. The shadow of political influence peddling makes the project even worse than sprawl.
I often have local residents tell me that developments happen because local officials are shown the money. “Follow the Money Trail” one person yelled out as I spoke to a group recently in North Carolina. In this case, the money trail seems fairly easy to follow, especially when the developer leaves a notation in its own expense record that says “plan approval assistan”. Is a $10,000 political contribution too much for pay for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of profit? Mayor Gilmore returned the money, but will he ever be able to return the appearance of a conflict? The Planning Board member’s defense appears to be that he had no idea his firm was given $6,000 by the developer. Is this how sprawl is built in America? Is your hometown for sale? For more information on this pathetic small town story, go to RAID’s website at www.njraid.com.