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  Rejected Developer Sues Over Town's Choice


From THE RECORD,

BY MERRY FIRSCHEIN, STAFF WRITER

FORT LEE, NJ — An unsuccessful applicant to redevelop 15.7 vacant acres near the George Washington Bridge has sued the borough, arguing the process to select a redeveloper was illegal, was manipulated to favor a local developer, did not comply with borough regulations and violated state housing law.

The competition by which borough officials selected Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates to transform the empty parcel into a mixed-use complex was "so procedurally flawed and so lacking in legal foundation that it cannot be sustained," Tucker Development and Acquisition Fund wrote in its complaint, filed in mid-May in Superior Court at Hackensack.

The Borough Council "changed the rules [of its selection guidelines] in order to select the local developer it clearly favored, even though doing so turned the concept of redevelopment on its head," the suit states.

Named in the 57-page suit are Mayor Mark Sokolich, the Borough Council, the borough Planning Board and Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates, the firm that won the competition.

Also named, among others, are SJP Residential Properties and Palisades Financial, partners in FLRA, SJP President Allen Goldman and James Demetrakis, a local developer and partner in the project.

Tucker is asking the court to invalidate the designation of FLRA as redeveloper of the parcel and the borough's selection process, and to declare the borough's desire to take Tucker's property through eminent domain as unconstitutional.

Sokolich announced April 15 that FLRA had been selected as redeveloper of the site, which borough officials have labeled the linchpin of Fort Lee's downtown revitalization. Applicants were invited to submit proposals for the entire site or just the eastern or western parcels.

Tucker Development bought the western half of the vacant parcel from the previous redeveloper, which defaulted on a loan related to the project. Tucker's project, called Hudson Lights, focused solely on that property.

Richard Tucker, president and chief executive officer of the company that bears his name, said Thursday he worked with borough officials to revise the firm's original proposal.

"We not only listened, we did what they wanted, and then they said, 'No thanks,' " Tucker said.

The lawsuit is "absolutely no surprise," Sokolich said Friday.

"We've been dealing with this property and vacant conditions for 43 years," he said. "Don't think for one second that government won't devote another few years to dealing with further delays."

Tucker was the only applicant that followed all of the borough's rules in its initial proposal, the suit contends.

"The FLRA proposal was inconsistent with the regulations set forth in the borough's redevelopment plan" including seeking a larger ratio of building-to-property coverage than allowed, a larger amount of residential units per acre than allowed, taller buildings than allowed, and proposing a hotel for the eastern parcel, also not allowed, Tucker says in the legal papers.

FLRA is a "shell company" created by Goldman, Demetrakis and SJP solely to win the designation, the suit says.

The borough, by selecting FLRA, violated the state's Local Redevelopment and Housing Law because the firm's proposal does not comply with the borough's current redevelopment plan, a requirement of the state law, the suit states.

The selection also violates state Municipal Land Use Law because the borough's Planning Board did not review FLRA's plan to make sure it fits with the borough's master plan, according to the lawsuit.

The borough also erroneously labeled the western parcel, owned by Tucker, as blighted when the property does not fit all of the state's criteria for the label, the suit contends.

Tucker said Thursday that borough officials made their decision to select a redeveloper based on incorrect information: that the company wasn't willing to develop the eastern parcel, and that the firm would need public assistance to finance its construction. Neither was true, Tucker said.