EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - The company that built a controversial Margate Causeway billboard and its law firm gave more than $14,000 to the political campaigns of Egg Harbor Township officials around the time of the billboard's initial 2011 approval, state election records show.
Stephen Hankin, the billboard opponents' attorney, alleges the contributions affected the approval process.
The township's Planning Board twice approved the project, despite incomplete site plans and wetlands issues that led to Department of Environmental Protection violations. Now, the billboard sits dark, after Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, in an August rebuke of the Planning Board's approval, ruled that it violated the township's longstanding ordinances. Mendez ordered the billboard be demolished by December.
Jersey Outdoor Media is considering an appeal, but both the township and its Planning Board are revamping its ordinances instead.
So, how did the 60-foot sign, which towers over nearby structures and - according to critics - sullies the view of pristine marshlands, ever get approved?
In the run-up to the initial approval, neither the board's planner, engineer nor solicitor alerted the board to the sign's proximity to protected wetlands, or that it lacked a permit under the state Coastal Area Facility Review Act.
In a May court filing, Hankin, attorney for Richard and Deborah Levitt, of Northfield, highlighted the role political contributions played, including contributions to the Egg Harbor Township Planning Board's planner, Vince Polistina, its solicitor, Chris Brown, and Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough.
Polistina, 42, of Egg Harbor Township, is a state-licensed planner and was a Republican state Assemblyman from 2008 to 2012. State Election Law Enforcement Commission reports show he received a total of $11,250 in campaign contributions from Jersey Outdoor Media, its law firm Cooper Levenson and attorneys in the year leading up to the initial approval until about a month afterward.
Brown, a 49-year-old Republican, of Ventnor, won Polistina's seat in the Assembly. ELEC files show his campaign received $500 from Cooper Levenson and $500 from the billboard company's president, Chet Atkins, about nine and 10 months after the initial approval.
McCullough is the township's long-serving Republican mayor and also sits on the Planning Board. ELEC files show he received $2,000 from Cooper Levenson in the year leading up to the initial Planning Board filing.
Polistina and Brown recused themselves in August 2012, 11 months after the initial Planning Board approval, leaving their firms' employees to perform their tasks.
"Yet, the board was doubtless left with the indelible imprimatur of both Polistina and Brown." Hankin wrote in May.
Hankin has since declined further comment on his statements, which were made in legal papers as part of the lawsuit. Mendez did not address the contributions in his ruling.
Polistina, Brown and McCullough have all strongly denied that money played a factor.
"Absolutely not," Polistina said. "They (contributions) play absolutely no role."
Brown said he approached the billboard application similarly to others, relying on earlier ordinance interpretations and voluntarily recusing himself at Hankin's suggestion. McCullough said he holds annual fundraisers, "But I'm not swayed by someone giving me a political contribution on a Planning Board application."
Jersey Outdoor Media, of Moorestown, Burlington County, bought its first Atlantic County billboard in May 2009, acquiring one adjacent to the Atlantic City Expressway near the Fire Road bridge in a larger $1.09 million deal.
The firm soon looked elsewhere. Its engineering firm, Arthur W. Ponzio of Atlantic City, formally identified six potential sites in an August 2010 report, and McCullough said Atkins called several months later to discuss potential sites. The company later settled on the Margate Causeway tract, owned by Hackney's Boat Yard Inc. It hired Cooper Levenson, an Atlantic City law firm, to help it through the development process.
State financial records show Cooper Levenson and its attorneys are both prolific political donors and locally prominent lobbyists. The firm donates to promote good candidates for office, company CEO Lloyd Levenson said.
The company gave $117,200 to New Jersey candidates between 2008 and 2012, ELEC records show, while company employees personally gave an additional $46,334. The firm also reported $464,012 in state-level lobbying expenses between 2009 and 2012.
In the year between conceiving the billboard idea and formally filing plans, ELEC files show Jersey Outdoor Media, Cooper Levenson and the firm's attorneys gave thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to associated township officials.
"I find it inappropriate," Richard Levitt said. "I can't say it was a tit-for-tat because I wasn't there. But it doesn't smell right."
The contributions included
•$1,500 from Cooper Levenson to McCullough's re-election campaign. McCullough said he did not attend Planning Board meetings in which the application was discussed.
•$3,600, in all, from Cooper Levenson to Polistina's election campaigns. Nicholas Talvacchia, the Cooper Levenson attorney who represented Jersey Outdoor Media, individually gave Polistina $1,000. Jersey Outdoor Media itself also gave $2,600 to Polistina and Assemblyman John Amodeo's joint campaign fund.
Talvacchia said he has donated to promote good candidates for 20 years and the contributions had no bearing on the application. Atkins said he attended fundraisers to "meet people, do business."
Other contributions followed. Jersey Outdoor Media formally asked Egg Harbor Township to review its development plan by the Ponzio firm on June 15, 2011. Hankin noted Cooper Levenson gave $500 to McCullough's campaign that same day. Cooper Levenson then gave an additional $150 to Polistina's campaign on June 22, 2011.
The first formal review, filed by Planning Board engineer Bob Watkins on Aug. 19, 2011, found enough absent files to suggest it be deemed incomplete. These included missing maps of nearby wetlands and plans for how the sign would be lit. A later letter by Talvacchia filled most of the gaps except for the lighting plan, insisting all wetlands had been identified.
Polistina's review on Sept. 7, 2011, also asked for a lighting plan and found Jersey Outdoor Media needed to contact property owners within 200 feet of the site.
But Hankin said Polistina missed key issues. Primarily, Hankin wrote, Polistina's report did not note the billboard was in "an obvious CAFRA zone." CAFRA generally requires a special state permit for development within 500 feet of the mean high water mark.
Polistina's report also failed to mention that the township generally banned using a single property for two principal uses, Hankin wrote. Mendez's ruling hit on the fact that the billboard property contained both a marina and a billboard. He wrote that township code considers both uses significant enough that they ought to be separate.
Polistina said he had interpreted the dual-use issue as applying only to properties in the Pinelands, and acknowledged the evident mistake.
Township and company officials also informally met at the township on Sept. 7, 2011. Minutes show Peter Miller, the township administrator, said the firm planned to build to 50 feet, but 60 feet was permitted.
The initial plan on file with the township did not disclose that the project was an LED-illuminated sign. A legal ad by the firm announcing the Sept. 7, 2011, hearing described an "outdoor advertising sign," noting, "one side may be an electronic sign."
Eight days after the initial hearing, Cooper Levenson Chief Operating Officer Kenneth Calemmo gave Polistina $2,600 - the personal legal maximum - because Calemmo said he was a good legislator.
"I don't know the first thing about the Margate billboard other than what I read in the paper," Calemmo said.
The Planning Board heard the billboard proposal four days later. It is unclear what was said, because there is no transcript and the audio recorder stopped working after one minute and sixteen seconds of pre-meeting chit-chat. The township has since upgraded its equipment.
Minutes show McCullough was out of town and Brown and Polistina were represented by other staff members. Jersey Outdoor Media - evidently taking Miller's suggestion - asked to raise the height to 60 feet. The board unanimously approved the slightly modified project. No members of the public spoke, and the only question from the board dealt with the height of an adjacent billboard.
Mendez's later ruling faulted the board, under Brown, for using the separate "commercial" and "business" zones as largely synonymous. Brown said he used standards other township Planning Board solicitors had established over two decades in what he said were three other similar cases.
Cooper Levenson gave Polistina $500 on Oct. 14, 2011, and Talvacchia gave him $500 10 days later. Planning then proceeded through the fall and winter, and the billboard was erected over the weekend of March 24-25, 2012.
It quickly drew attention.
DEP inspectors visited the site March 26, 2012, observing "the performance of unauthorized development activities within the coastal zone." Jersey Outdoor Media asked for DEP permits April 13, and the agency issued a violation notice April 19 for the sign and "the placement of fill material within 150 feet of the mean high water line associated with Stillman Creek."
The Levitts sued to stop the pulsating billboard April 16, 2012, saying it kept them up at night.
The DEP required Jersey Outdoor Media to refile its application, which the Planning Board re-approved after a series of heated meetings in late 2012 and early 2013. Mendez struck down the approval in August.
The township has since distanced itself from the billboard plan.
"The board was hoodwinked," Marc Friedman, the township solicitor, said in a deposition. "Had the plan that was submitted to the Department of Environmental Protection been submitted to the Planning Board, they wouldn't have been granted the approvals.
"The sign wouldn't have been constructed."
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CLARIFICATION (Published 10-1-13)
A story that appeared on Page A1 of Sunday’s edition regarding a controversial Egg Harbor Township billboard did not reflect that the firm of Cooper Levenson April Niedelman & Wagenheim, P.A. represented Jersey Outdoor Media from July 16 to Nov. 24, 2010, and again beginning on July 21, 2011, and that campaign contributions to Egg Harbor Township officials came at a time when it did not represent Jersey Outdoor.