Joseph F. Berenato
Blueberry Ridge residents at meeting
HAMMONTON—Residents of Traditions at Blueberry Ridge attended the regular meeting of town council—held at 7 p.m. on August 23 in town hall—for the second month in a row regarding concerns over the retention basin on the corner of Third Street and Old Forks Road.
During the first public comment portion of the meeting, Bob Ruberton, of 7 Anne Dr.—a member of the board of directors of Traditions at Blueberry Ridge—shared with council “ongoing concerns of the residents of our community.”
“Phone calls I’ve received from them are real and concerning. The residents question why Trotter’s Run Development continues to pump water into the basin adjoining Blueberry Ridge. They’ve seen large septic trucks removing water from Trotter’s Run basin and, at the same time, they observed a large pump that was installed that pumps water into the basin that adjoins Blueberry Ridge property,” Ruberton said.
Ruberton said that residents have remarked that the basin has “deteriorated.”
“It has also been noticed that this additional water is overbearing the basin, causing the water level to remain extremely high. It should be noted that, back in 2017, the pumping was to be—and I quote—‘a very short term of inconvenience.’ However, this pumping continues to this day. In addition, noise from the pump running for several hours at a time remains a nuisance. Rightly, residents also have concerns as to whether the water is contaminated, and question how long Trotter’s Run community is going to be allowed to pump water into the basin,” Ruberton said.
Ruberton said that areas of the basin banks are showing signs of erosion.
“A large sinkhole is developing near the basin dam on Old Forks Road that should be addressed. I asked myself, who would be responsible if that dam breached? That’s a tremendous amount of water in that basin, with little percolation. Again, there has been no maintenance done on these basin properties. In the past, residents have reported to board members, and myself, that kids have jumped the fence surrounding basin one to fish in the pond. Again, the water table in that basin is quite high. So the question arises as to who is responsible if an accident were to occur on the property?” Ruberton said.
Similarly, Ruberton said that the second basin, located next to the Puerto Rican Civic Association clubhouse, often “has water in it, and has no fence around it.”
“Thus, the same question of responsibility arises. So I ask you: is council willing to respond to the concerns of these Hammonton residents?” Ruberton said.
Fred Pietropola, of 25 Alexander Dr., expressed similar concerns.
“Persons unknown have cut a hole in the fence that surrounds that basin, and juveniles have been observed trespassing into the basin. As Mr. Ruberton alluded to, the water level’s very high. The banks along the retention basin are crumbling. If a young kid gets close to that bank, he’s liable to have some slide-ins, take him into the pond and something unfortunate is going to happen. As a concerned parent, I think all of us should be concerned about that, and I just wanted to make you aware of it as a matter of public safety and leave it up to you as to how you need to deal with it as best you can,” Pietropola said.
During discussion, Councilman Steven Furgione voiced his opinion on the matter.
“The way I see the next step happening—and this is just me speaking with my thoughts—we can come in here month after month and keep talking about the same thing, and we can try to come up with something. I like [town solicitor] Mr. [Michael] Malinsky; I’m sure you guys like your attorney. They’re expensive. Let’s cut through all the nonsense. They’re both expensive. There’s got to be a plan or something you guys want, that we could sit down, have a conversation and see what we can and can’t do here between the homeowner association and the town,” Furgione said.
Otherwise, Furgione said, the same conversation will be held “month after month after month, which turns into year after year after year, which has already occurred.”
“So, I would advocate that your attorney reaches out to Mr. Malinsky, comes up with something so we could sit down and say, ‘OK, we agree here; we disagree there’ and try to, for once, put this thing to bed,” Furgione said.
Walter Kelley, of 31 Alexander Dr.—and the president of the Blueberry Ridge homeowners’ association—took to the microphone in response to Furgione.
“With regards to your comment, I totally agree with you—but it should have been done 15 years ago, 16 years ago, not now. Mediation is coming up; that’s when we’ll do it,” Kelley said.
Republican mayoral candidate Bill Cappuccio, of 267 Chestnut St., also addressed council—and Mayor Stephen DiDonato directly—during public comment.
“I was here last month at this council meeting, advocating for the members of Blueberry Ridge in reference to the ongoing issue with this retention basin. At the time, they and myself raised some valid points. In return, Mr. Mayor, you lectured us about you sitting in the big chair and the rest of us are in the cheap seats,” Cappuccio said.
Cappuccio said that it was his belief that “the taxpayers of Hammonton are owed an apology.”
“Mr. Malinsky referred to my political speech, but failed to mention you summoned Mr. Wuillermin to come defend your actions, when he himself is a political candidate and was part of council during the issues with the basin and the release of the bonds. Mr. Malinsky—when I was asking questions about a separate issue, the joint court issue—took the time to verbally abuse me and, throughout the meeting, mentioned numerous times the Blueberry Ridge issues were in litigation and could not be discussed, yet he took time to attack Mr. Kelley and myself, blurting out details of the lawsuit, and treated me—a taxpayer—as a hostile witness. I think he may have bordered on unethical behavior, and that is for our legal system to decide,” Cappuccio said.
Cappuccio also referenced other council members.
“Mr. Rodio showed contempt that the taxpayers had the nerve to show up and blindside council and ask questions. I have to commend Mr. Olivo. He stood up for everyone, and said he defended the rights of any and all taxpayers to questions the actions of elected officials without fear of retribution,” Cappuccio said.
Cappuccio repeated his request.
“In light of the treatment and the statements made by the mayor and solicitor, I feel Mr. Kelley and myself—along with all the taxpayers ‘in the cheap seats’—are owed an apology for the comments and the way the solicitor treated myself last month. Anyone sitting in—and as you referred to, Mr. Mayor—the ‘big chair’ must remember that elected officials are here to serve the needs of all taxpayers and to treat them all with respect and dignity, putting aside political differences. No person should have to fear coming to these chambers with any issue at any time, not to be treated like Mr. [Mark] Santora, who’s been here for many, many months asking questions and gets no answers. I hope to hear an apology, but, in reality, I expect that none will be given,” Cappuccio said.
DiDonato offered exactly that, noting that, in his close to 12 years as mayor, the one thing he has “always prided myself in is listening to the residents.”
“I’ve taken calls at 2 o’clock in the morning; I’ve taken calls at 4 o’clock in the morning. I’ve been on the scene of different catastrophes late at night, early in the morning. I’ve never not answered the bell. As far as me saying the ‘big seat?’ I’m a big boy; I’m a big man. If I did something to offend somebody, I learned a long time ago to be humble enough to say I’m sorry. So, if I said something that was taken out of context, it did not mean that I am better than anybody. I put my pants on one leg at a time. Anybody that knows Steve DiDonato knows that Steve DiDonato’s never carried himself in 60 years of life better than anybody else, from the time I was born all through school until today,” DiDonato said.
DiDonato said that he is “not better than anybody; not at all.”
“So, I apologize because I am intelligent enough to know if I’ve said something and it was taken out of context, so I apologize to not only the citizens of Traditions at Blueberry Ridge but the entire town of Hammonton, if that was a mistake and was said inaccurately,” DiDonato said.
Regarding the situation between Traditions at Blueberry Ridge and Trotter’s Run Development, DiDonato said that there are “some issues here, and we all acknowledge that.”
“Everybody’s been working through this process for a long time. I believe Trotter’s Run reached out and had approval at one time from the board of directors to pump into that basin. I believe Mr. Pantalone—in this case, it was Joe Pantalone—reached out to I believe it was John Adolph, and I believe the board of directors gave him approval to pump into that basin from their basin, because they were having some problems. The town was never involved in those negotiations. That was homeowners’ association to homeowners’ association. So, I just want that clarified, the record to be clarified,” DiDonato said.
DiDonato said that he wanted “to set the record straight with a few of those things.”
“The town did not get involved in homeowner’s association and homeowners’ association discussing pumping of one basin into the other. That was approved by your board, and I believe Mr. Adolph at the time—and I think Mr. Kelley was also on the board at the time, I believe,” DiDonato said.
Ruberton retook to the podium, stating that he agreed with the mayor but that the agreement was only supposed to be “for a short period of time.”
“I remember in one agreement, I think it was for one day, if I’m not mistaken—but it’s been 12 years. That’s my only concern. When is it going to stop? You can understand that,” Ruberton said.
DiDonato said that he was “never privy to those negotiations.”
“I can’t say it was one day or one year or 12 years. That was something internally between you two, and the town of Hammonton had no knowledge or no involvement in it,” DiDonato said.
Ruberton then quoted from an article that was printed in The Hammonton Gazette on August 30, 2017.
“This is Mr. Pantalone, and I quote: ‘This is the safest way, although it will be a short-term inconvenience.’ That was in 2017, sir,” Ruberton said.
DiDonato said that the issue needed to be addressed with Trotter’s Run Development.
“That was nothing that the town was involved in,” DiDonato said.
Ruberton countered by citing more of the article.
“But then I have your quote, sir. It says, ‘We have to get this done.’ And this I’m taking from the paper, your quote. ‘We have to get this done because it’s impacting the residents. It’s a hardship to the residents on that side.’ That was your quote, sir,” Ruberton said.
“Yes, I was quoted that, but we never—that was something between homeowners’ associations. If you would like to tell Trotter’s Run to cease and desist, you can do that today,” DiDonato said.
Ruberton said that Traditions at Blueberry Ridge does not own the basin in question.
“It’s not under our name, and you could ask your attorney. We don’t own it. We have no skin in this, I mean, as far as that’s concerned. Am I correct, Mr. Malinsky?” Ruberton said.
Malinsky answered in the affirmative.
“You are correct that you don’t own it. Neither does the town. The town doesn’t own it, either,” Malinsky said.
Kelley then returned to the microphone to address the situation.
“Mayor, in the last negotiation on this pumping, you received details from Joe Pantalone asking you for permission to do it, because we told him we didn’t own it—and, based upon the permission that you gave him, right, the only thing we asked for, on the advice of our lawyer to protect our future position, was a hold-harmless, and the hold-harmless clearly says Traditions at Blueberry Ridge does not own this. The permission comes from the town,” Kelley said.
DiDonato said that they would have to “allow the court and negotiations to solve the problem.”
“It’s something we cannot solve right here, right now, tonight,” DiDonato said.
“A minute ago, you just said to us, ‘You could tell Trotter’s Run to stop pumping tomorrow.’ You just said that. You did, OK? Why can’t you tell them to stop pumping?” Kelley said.
DiDonato repeated that the town of Hammonton does not own the basin.
“Same position we’re in,” Kelley said.
Malinsky said, however, that Traditions at Blueberry Ridge is in “a little bit of a better position” than the town of Hammonton.
“You have an amended and restated drainage basin easement which gives you the authority, the right and privilege to enter on the basin lots for the purposes of constructing, reconstructing, maintaining, operating, repairing, renewing, expanding and/or replacing, if necessary, the drainage basins and all pertinent structures and to allow stormwater to flow into and across the basin lots. You have the authority, under this document, to stop them from doing that,” Malinsky said.
Kelley said that Traditions at Blueberry Ridge only has such authority once the basin comes into their possession.
“The first part of the thing says upon it being turned over to us, free and clear. I read the document myself,” Kelley said.
Malinsky attempted to respond.
“An easement that allows you over—” Malinsky said.
“Easement. An easement deals with the basin; it doesn’t deal with Trotter’s Run,” Kelley said.
“It deals with a grantor by Triad—listen, it’s no point in arguing,” Malinsky said.
“Sir, I’m not going to argue with you,” Kelley said.
Malinsky attempted to draw the conversation to a close.
“We’ll deal with it in litigation,” Malinsky said.
“That’s exactly right,” Kelley said.
“That’s fine,” Malinsky said.
Malinsky later revisited the topic during his report.
“From everything I’ve seen, and all the documents I’ve reviewed in this matter so far, it appears that all of the agreements for anything regarding Trotter’s Run into the basin at Traditions at Blueberry Ridge was between Mr. Pantalone and the board at Traditions at Blueberry Ridge,” Malinsky said.
Malinsky said that, with regards to the drainage easement, it was “not accurate that it was contingent on conveyance.”
“It says, ‘Whereas, grantor agrees to convey to association fee simple title to the basin lots at a future date; whereas, in order to facilitate the association’s maintenance of the basins pending conveyance of the basin lots by grantor to the association, a drainage easement was granted’—and the drainage easement being that pending the future conveyance of that, the association did not have to wait to start doing their responsibilities,” Malinsky said.
Malinsky said that the easement was entered into by Traditions at Blueberry Ridge, which gave them “the right and responsibility of constructing, reconstructing, maintaining, operating, repairing, renewing, expanding and/or replacing, if necessary, the drainage basins.”
“So, I just want to make clear: it was stated that it was contingent upon conveyance, and that is not what it says in the document. It contemplates conveyance at a future date, but it says ‘in order to facilitate the association’s maintenance of the basins pending conveyance.’ That’s why this was entered into. But, at no time from any document that I saw, did this council give authority to Trotter’s Run to dump into that basin,” Malinsky said.
The next regular meeting of town council will be September 27 at 7 p.m.