BARNEGAT TOWNSHIP — With environmental concerns mounting, a lawsuit has been filed against a property owner and a Midwest auto-auction company after 5,000 potentially storm-damaged vehicles have been transported to and stored in the township in the weeks since Hurricane Sandy.
Officials said this week that Barnegat Holdings LLC, owner of the Johnson’s gravel pit area on West Bay Avenue, did not secure the necessary approvals or permits to run the operation that has trucked in thousands of vehicles to the township’s rural west side.
The vehicles are being transported to the 100-acre-plus property by contractors through Insurance Auto Auctions, or IAA, of Westchester, Ill., which also is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
The suit claims the company is creating an inventory of vehicles for an auction, and raises concerns about the potential leakage of hazardous materials into the township’s ground and groundwater.
Township attorney Jerry Dasti said a complaint was filed Thursday in Ocean County Superior Court against Barnegat Holdings. During a hearing Thursday, Judge John A. Peterson issued an order allowing a visit to the property, Dasti said.
The order said that IAA can continue to use the property as a storage facility for the vehicles that are there but that as of 5 p.m. today, no additional vehicles are permitted at the site. IAA declined to comment about the lawsuit.
Barnegat Holdings attorney John Novak said he has requested the Pinelands Commission and state Department of Environmental Protection meet to discuss a resolution but has not received a response.
“Before there is the expense of litigation, why don’t we get people together as early as Monday to discuss this? But (Jerry) Dasti ... informed me that they would be filing litigation as early as possible,” Novak said Thursday.
The vehicles represent a temporary use of a property based on an emergency, and so far more than 100 vehicles have been removed, Novak said.
“There needs to be a safe place for these cars to be stored so they can be photographed and inspected properly,” Novak said.
Dasti, along with township Administrator Dave Breeden and representatives of the New Jersey Pinelands Commission, toured the site Friday afternoon.
Dasti said there are about 5,000 vehicles at the site and that, although he was expecting to see cars piled on top of one another, the conditions there are orderly.
In the lawsuit it is alleged that “the storage of the damaged vehicles on the properties is a threat to the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the township.”
Dasti said there is an expectation that the operation will be completed in about six to nine months and that all vehicles will be removed from the site.
Novak said the vehicles are intact and not leaking and do not pose an environmental hazard.
Representatives from the DEP visited the property last week and spent a half-day inspecting vehicles and found that two of them had to be removed because one had sustained fire damage and another impact damage, he said.
DEP spokesman Bob Considine wrote in an email this week that the Pinelands Commission contacted the DEP about the issue and the agency supports the commission’s contention that the storage of motor vehicles should not be permitted in the Pinelands.
“The disposal of this type of material should not be on grass or sand, let alone an environmentally sensitive area like the Pinelands,” Considine said.
Last week, Charles M. Horner, director of regulatory programs at the Pinelands Commission, wrote a letter to the property owner detailing the permitting process it failed to follow and the state’s environmental concerns. He said the current use of the property is a violation of the permitted land-use standards of the township and the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan.
Breeden said the township code-enforcement office began issuing citations earlier this week for violations including the use of land without approval, storing unlicensed vehicles and failure to obtain license to buy, sell or store automobiles.
Novak said Thursday that he has filed for an appearance in municipal court to respond to the citations and has been informed that the township will continue to issue them every day.
“We have grave concern about thousands of cars being stored onsite without the proper safety and environmental concerns being taken into consideration,” Breeden said.
He said officials started to catch wind of the activity over the Thanksgiving holiday as flatbed trucks traveled the rural West Bay Avenue delivering the vehicles.
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