By John Dunphy
After five years, the battle between Sayreville [NJ] officials and National Lead has reached a turning point.
Earlier this week, the Appellate Division of state Superior Court ruled that the Sayreville Economic and Redevelopment Agency (SERA) acted properly in moving to condemn the National Lead (NL) Industries property, the 427-acre site of a former manufacturing plant along the Raritan River.
As a result, SERA now has the ability to file a declaration of taking and obtain formal possession of the land.
“What a wonderful Christmas present for the people of Sayreville,” Mayor Kennedy O’Brien said. “Five years of persistence and hard work have been vindicated in court.”
O’Brien also sits on the SERA board.
From 1935-82, NL Industries operated a plant for the production of titanium dioxide, used in paint, on the property, a use that led to the land’s contamination. The property is now considered one of the state’s most important brownfields — land on which possible reuse is complicated by the presence of contamination or hazardous material.
NL Industries had filed an appeal in regard to a ruling by Judge Robert Longhi in state Superior Court, New Brunswick. Longhi had ruled in favor of approving a declaration of taking for the redevelopment agency. National Lead had contended that SERA did not negotiate in good faith and had abused the power of eminent domain.
The Appellate Division’s three-judge panel agreed with Longhi’s decision that SERA’s initiation of eminent domain to acquire the NL Industries property was for a proper public purpose and that NL Industries was unable to prove any fraud, bad faith or abuse of discretion in SERA’s exercise of the power of eminent domain.
“Local governments in cooperation with each other are seeking to restore these lands to productive use ...,” Judge Longhi said. “Economic redevelopment agencies are given the power of eminent domain. Condemnation thus is a part of the redevelopment purpose ... to reclaim areas that have long remained unproductive. The proposed taking in this matter is clearly for a public purpose.”
The Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders has given SERA $39 million in grants and loans toward purchasing the NL site — $19 million in December 2000 and another $20 million earlier this year so that SERA can deposit the appraised value, $32.075 million, in court. SERA will have to pay the $20 million back within two years or turn control of the property over to the county.
Attorney Christopher Gibson of the law firm Archer and Greiner, of Haddonfield, Camden County, said although National Lead is disappointed in the courts’ decisions regarding condemnation, his client has been successful regarding the amount of money SERA was required to deposit into escrow.
“We won that issue,” he said, noting that SERA had originally sought to deposit just $4 million — the $32-million appraised value, less the anticipated $28 million needed for cleanup. National Lead is still in charge of the cleanup.
O’Brien said prospective developers would front funds for the remediation of the property and later seek compensation from National Lead. He said the property holds the potential to bring substantial tax revenue to the borough via a major redevelopment project.
“We’re looking to attract world-class developers,” he said.
Among a number of ideas, O’Brien said the site would be ideal for corporate offices as well as a transportation hub similar to the Metropark station in Woodbridge.
In 2003, the English Group proposed bringing a combination baseball stadium and indoor arena, along with a hotel, convention center, retail complex, and other uses and amenities, to the site. O’Brien said that idea also is still very much a possibility.
He said all proposals for the site are being looked at via a three-point system he referred to as “image, impact and yield” — what image will the developer bring to Sayreville; how will it affect the borough; and what property tax revenues will it produce.
Officials hope the formal condemnation proceedings will be completed within the next month, leading the way toward acquisition of the very property for which SERA was created in the first place.
“The National Lead property will redefine the borough for the next 100 years the way Hercules and DuPont did at the beginning of the 20th century,” O’Brien said. “[It will be] the economic engine for the town.”
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