MONROE – The township mayor fired back at a developers' lawsuit on Monday, saying “I will not be silenced.”

Developers CTO7 SPII LLC and DT07 SPII LLC named Mayor Gerald Tamburro, the township and the zoning board in its civil action lawsuit filed with the New Jersey Superior Court in Middlesex County.

In naming Tamburro, the developers claimed that his statements made prior to the March 26 zoning board meeting violated the developers' civil rights and were defamatory.

The application called for constructing six buildings with 206 residential units, 43,568 square feet of retail space and nine townhouses. The townhouses were proposed on a separate lot, not the main 48.29 acres at 1099 Route 33 West.

Responding to the civil lawsuit, Tamburro said in the township-issued statement this week, “We will not be bullied by aggressive developers and their lawyers, who are focused on maximizing their profits, going beyond the court ordered settlement, no matter the detriment to the people of Monroe and our environment."

The court-ordered settlement is from 2016 between Monroe Township and the Fair Share Housing Center. The agreement reduced Monroe’s affordable housing requirements from more than 2,000 units to 1,133 and granted the township immunity from its Mount Laurel obligation until 2025.

The suit claims that the 2016 settlement was based, in part, on the 43 affordable residential units that SPII would build. SPII first submitted an application to develop the site in 2015, which consisted of farmland and commercial located within the Highway Development District.

“I have stated my opposition to this proposed development in my capacity as a concerned Monroe resident and an American who is entitled to free speech,” Tamburro said. “If this developer has a problem with my criticism, that’s his problem.”

Prior to the March zoning board meeting, Tamburro was critical of SPII’s application, which was modified after an eagle’s nest was discovered on the property. Federal and state regulations prohibit construction within 660 feet of an eagle’s nest. The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act make it illegal to harm eagles, their nest or eggs.

“I’ve not been pleased with this proposal since its inception; it is yet another way in which developers use state affordable housing mandates to force more development into towns,” said Tamburro in the March 19 township release. “And now, the developer is still trying to squeeze as much development as possible onto this site, even with a bald eagle nesting ground. To me, this is absolutely unacceptable.”

It was this statement and others Tamburro made, prior to the vote, the lawsuit claims were defamatory and violated the developers' civil rights.

The suit claims that the developers’ representatives tried multiple times to meet with Tamburro “to obtain the Mayor’s thoughts on SP’s 2018 Amended Application,” before the March zoning board meeting, but were denied and told to continue discussions through the TRC [technical review committee] meetings, which happened five times within 15 months.

The suit further states that a week prior to the public hearing, Tamburro made statements in the township press release that “reflect the utter bad faith of the Mayor and Township because, prior to said press release, SP had no reason to believe that its proposed development of the Subject Property, which was included in the Township’s own court-order HEFSP [Housing Element and Fair Share Plan], would be prohibited.”

Additionally, the suit claims that the mayor’s comments that “As the zoning board votes, eaglets are beginning to hatch on the Millstone River,” were made “without actual knowledge that any bald eagle eggs were in fact beginning to hatch. Nonetheless, the Mayor made such statements in furtherance of his position that opposition is needed against SP and SP’s proposal for its development.”

The suit claims that Tamburro’s statements were “intended to harm” SP’s reputation and that the developers were “acting illegally by ignoring state and federal laws regarding the buffer requirements for the bald eagle’s nest, statements that were false and highly defamatory per se.”

SP is seeking several remedies, including a declaring that the “Defendants violated rights.”

Tamburro’s March statements resulted in approximately 150 people attending the zoning board meeting.

“Suing the town, and me personally, will do absolutely nothing to change the position of the zoning board, which has made its ruling,” Tamburro said this week. “And as a resident who cares deeply about this community, it is a decision I fully support and I will not be silenced.”

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Christopher Lang is a freelance correspondent for MonroeNow. Previously he was part of The Record-USA Today Network and served as an editor for a decade at NJMG.