The effort to turn two steeply wooded lots on Bloomfield Avenue into a mixed-use development has entered into a new phase: litigation.
On Tuesday, July 14, a group that includes current residents of Verona and heirs of some of its earliest families filed a complaint in Essex County Superior Court to uphold a deed restriction that prohibits commercial uses on 176 and 200 Bloomfield Avenue. On Friday, July 17, developer Dennis Handel of DMH2 LLC, the owner of the two lots, filed a suit in the same court against the Township of Verona. The Verona Planning Board narrowly approved Handel’s project in June.
The residents’ complaint centers on the deed restrictions that were placed on the properties in the late 1800s. When Fillmore Condit established the open space we now know as Everett Field he placed a restriction in its deed that the land could not be used for commercial purposes. Through Condit’s efforts, most of the properties that surround the field also have deed restrictions that prohibit commercial and, sometimes, manufacturing use.
When 200 Bloomfield Avenue was purchased by the Stonham family just before the turn of the 20th century, it had a prohibition in the deed against the commercial use. After the Annin Flag factory was built across the street, the Stonhams added a deed restriction against manufacturing on the property. Deed restrictions are passed on with a property when it is sold, and can only be undone by the parties that created the restriction, or their heirs.
When Dennis Handel filed his zoning review application with Verona three years ago, he indicated on the form that there were no deed restrictions on the properties. (Handel’s first application, to the Board of Adjustment, was unanimously denied in March 2013.) But two years ago, in Handel’s first appearance before the Verona Planning Board on Aug. 22, 2013, Montclair Avenue resident Jack McEvoy, one of the leaders of a group opposed to the development, revealed that he had discovered that there was, in fact, a deed restriction on 200 Bloomfield Avenue. That restriction was apparently never lifted and descendants of Arthur and Carrie Stonham are among the participants in the new lawsuit, as is McEvoy.
Many members of the group were at the Town Council meeting on Monday night to ask the town to join their complaint, and you can watch their presentation here. They stressed that they were not looking for financial support, but only an affirmation that deed restrictions matter in Verona. Such restrictions are not uncommon: The former Brunner lots across from the Richfield Regency have a restriction against alcohol being served on the property, which has stymied their redevelopment as a restaurant site. The current plan calls for them to be turned into two small apartment buildings.
The Town Council did not comment on the deed complaint on Monday, other than to note that it must meet in closed session to review it.
Meanwhile, MyVeronaNJ.com learned yesterday that Handel has filed a suit against the Township of Verona. It is not yet known what the nature of his complaint is. Reached by email, Interim Town Manager Mitchell Stern said Thursday morning that, “I am unaware of any lawsuit filed by Mr. Handel. If and when the Township is served with any legal documents, counsel will be notified and the appropriately required actions and responses will take place.”