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Cranford Is Denied Motion in Birchwood Fight

Attorney for the township argued that the court's special master was biased because of her past affordable housing advocacy work.

At yesterday's Union County Superior Court hearing in the Birchwood development case, Judge Lisa Chrystal denied the township's motion for a new trial. The judge also scheduled a hearing on the final site plan approval for the 360-unit affordable housing project for early next year.

On Monday, Township Attorney Phil Morin argued that comments made by Special Court Master Elizabeth McKenzie in support of affordable housing cast doubt on her impartiality in the case, and thus warranted a reappointment and new trial. The comments were contained in emails. Still, the other side argued that McKenzie's past affordable housing work did not have an affect on her recommendations to the township.

"This is not the sort of bias that one would expect," said Stephen Eisdorfer, an attorney for Cranford Development Associates. "All of the events happened after the court found [Cranford] not in compliance," he added.

Judge Chrystal mentioned McKenzie's resume, which included stints throughout New Jersey doing work with affordable housing since the 1970s and said the township should have been aware. "Defendants have failed to demonstrate relief is warranted," Chrystal said in her opinion, before denying the motion to reconsider the appointment of McKenzie.

"That was a disappointing result to the township, but not surprising," Morin said hours later during his township committee meeting briefing. "That will be an  issue that will be part of a future appeal," he said.

Chrystal scheduled a hearing on the final site plan for the Birchwood Avenue property on Feb. 4, 2013 at 10a.m. A final decision is expected that day, or soon thereafter, according to Morin. A final decision will clear the way for the township to appeal and continue its fight against the Birchwood development. 

Donald December 18, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Cranford's legal strategy in this entire Birchwood affair has been feckless, as well as predictably wrong. Here is what I wrote on December 4 in response to an article about this silly motion, posted on the Cranford Chronicle Web site: "Don't get your hopes up, folks. These motions rarely prevail, the movant carrying a very heavy burden. "Special Master McKenzie's statements may reasonably be interpreted as merely meaning she is a supporter of New Jersey's constitution, which -- as construed by the state's supreme court -- imposes affordable housing requirements on municipalities. It's similar to a federal judge saying she is an "advocate for the First Amendment" regarding a freedom-of-speech case. "No one could fairly contend that a judge is biased for saying she is a strong supporter of the prevailing law, let alone the governing constitution! Moreover, all judges routinely advocate settlement in a civil suit, no matter the subject matter. In fact, they are taught to do that in "judge's school" when they are first appointed to the bench. "So although all things are possible when a court decides an issue, I wouldn't expect Special Master McKenzie to be disqualified." Cranford should have dispensed with the normal cronysim and obtained top-flight legal representation long ago, perhaps even looking to Manhattan. It may well be too late now. I look forward to seeing whom the town retains to handle the appeals.
pcisme@me.com December 18, 2012 at 01:36 PM
Another long-winded diatribe by the Donald. How much money and time is being spent to try to postpone the inevitable? Like those defending the rights of gun owners, "enough is enough." Let's try to make this project look as good as possible and let's move on.

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