A Superior Court judge upheld yesterday the township's agreement to purchase the 50-acre plot known as Klockner Woods and ordered township officials to pay for the land within 30 days, capping more than three years of dispute over the tract.
In her complicated 80-page ruling, Feinberg also ordered that some $327,000 in interest the township has already paid will not be credited toward the purchase price as the township had requested. The ruling means the township's final price tag for the land will be nearly $4.6 million.
Judge Linda R. Feinberg also shot down claims by the township council that the purchase agreement was illegal because the council never voted to appropriate the funds and ordered the township to abide by all terms of the consent order she issued in June 2005, which set the terms of the purchase.
In the strongly worded opinion, Feinberg took a chastising tone with the township and the council, going as far as to say she regretted a decision made last year to postpone the purchase while the township investigated the land's value. The judge seemed to blame politics for the strife over the purchase.
"Looking back, the court regrets that decision (to postpone the ruling,)" the opinion said. "Now, several years later, clearly the allegations by the township were wrong. Furthermore, at this juncture, the action by the township appears to have been motivated purely as a result of outcry from members of the public, who while urging the township to preserve the property, objected to the price."
She's right, of course. This was all motivated by the outcry from the public, who objected to having to buy land for $4.1 million that they sold barely four years earlier for $375,000. Clearly, if the land is really worth $4.1 million (and it sure looks like it is), we got screwed when it was sold off for vastly less than it was worth.
The payment is now $4.6 million. The article by Times reporter Darryl Isherwood explains that the interest from Sept. 2005 to Sept. 2006 must be paid, but the interest since then may be credited to the purchase price.
Mayor Glen Gilmore sent out a news release yesterday, tooting his own horn:
Gilmore, who only days before, in his State of the Township address, re-asserted his belief that Klockner Woods were, in fact, worth preserving, said, after learning of the Court's decision: "I am glad that the court has confirmed what we had said from the very beginning, namely, that these woods are woods that could become a housing development, and that the price we offered to pay for them was a fair price." Gilmore went on to say, "This is an important vindication for a number of good citizens whose reputations went on the line to save these woods."
The judge's decision also contained a stern warning that additional costs to fight the purchase are an unnecessary and unwarranted burden on the taxpayers of Hamilton that are to be laid directly at the doorstep of the Council, who, from the beginning, has misrepresented the land, its price and their motives for opposing the preservation purchase.
Rejecting all the arguments raised by the special council retained by Council, the Judge has ruled:
1. The price negotiated by the Mayor was a fair price and that if the negotiated price were set aside, the taxpayers would have to pay more for the same land;
2. The purchase of this land can be made without direct resort to using money raised from local property taxes and that the council's contention that the agreement was void was without merit;
3. Further delay by opponents of the purchase can only waste taxpayers money and endanger the preservation of this parcel of green.
Surprisingly he didn't go so far as to thumb his nose while shouting, "I told you so!" Hamilton has a mayoral election this year, if you hadn't guessed. Gilmore doesn't mention that he was mayor when the land was sold to Fieldstone in 2001 for $375,000.
Let me state again that the reason we're all being fleeced by this deal is spelled out by the mayor in #2: Mercer County and the State are chipping in for this one, so we all have to pay. Also let me state again (because it bears repeating) that there is no question that this parcel of land should be preserved; just whether or not the price was fair.
So, is that it? Is this the last word?
Councilman Dave Kenny, who raised issues about the land before he was elected to the council and later led the effort to nullify the purchase, said the opinion represented "a sad day for Hamilton taxpayers" and promised to appeal.
Somehow I doubt that will help. Since the judge was pretty clear that the price was fair, I think an investigation needs to be launched into original sale price, including into the rumor that Gilmore recieved campaign donations from Fieldstone during his last election battle (he denies this.) Also, maybe a look should be taken at the the decision to avoid the costs of a court battle by not using Eminent Domain to secure the land for preservation.
It appears that the court decision was fair, but that doesn't guarantee that justice was served.