Okay, here we go.
New Milford residents are at a disadvantage and Hekemian’s attorney DelVecchio seems to be calling the shots. A Goliath has descended upon them, and they’re fighting to protect and preserve their home values, modest bank accounts, the safety and security of their high school children, and the charm and character of their hometown.
Some are still recovering from storm and flood events. Many are dealing with the long-term effects of a bad economy and cannot afford vacations, or brand new cars once the old ones konk, to eat dinner out or indulge themselves in any extravagant way (hmm…I can identify). Few could fathom having sooooooooo much money that they could build a gigantic shopping center to add to their portfolios. S. Hekemian Group and Suez/United Water can well afford to leave this property alone.
The likelihood of that happening is nil. So here we are.
On the one side we’ve got DelVecchio, who is experienced in courtroom matters.
On the other, we have the concerned public who is not as versed in these matters, so they are at the mercy of the merciless barking DelVecchio who objects at every opportunity, demanding that evidence be authenticated, curtailed, stricken, or removed.
DelVecchio is so objection-happy that when Miriam Pickett presented a hypothetical, he stood up and said, “To the extent that it is a hypothetical, I will allow it, if it was anything more, I would object.” (Glad you got that off your chest Mr. Delvecchio.) He even raised an objection at one point to his own expert’s question (most likely because it was bringing forth damaging information from the resident). It was amusing, but also ridiculous.
Our hometown Zoning Board at the Borough Hall is the arena for this farce farce farce -- not some courtroom in Hackensack. For this reason the rules of law are supposedly relaxed, yet DelVecchio is ringing the objection bell every time a New Milford resident does not follow form – a form that is unknown to them since there is no education to the public on how to navigate the questioning process in this quasi-judicial proceeding. Zoning Board attorney Sproviero kindly tries to provide hints, but “I cannot coach you how to do it,” he says.
Therefore, New Milford residents are learning as they go. “You can’t offer testimony, but you can ask questions.” “You can’t say that, but you can predicate on hypotheticals.” (Bloody hell, the last time I predicated on a hypothetical I got an infection…oh nevermind.) The net result is, it’s a maze and New Milford residents are blindfolded.
It’s frustrating to watch a resident striving for the precise way to question the witness only to be admonished for straying into DelVecchio’s objection-obsessed territory. It brings to mind the carnival scene in The Jerk: “Anything in this general area right in here, anything below the stereo and on this side of the bicentennial glasses, anything between the ashtray and the thimbles, anything in this three inches right in here, in this area that includes the chicklets but not the erasers.”
If their intentions were good and true and honorable, they wouldn’t be striving so hard to muzzle the residents of New Milford.
Highly Questionable Analysis
Mark Sussman, Hekemian’s EXPERT in land evaluation, analyzed the impact the proposed UW property development would have on nearby residential home values. He compared the sale of homes located across from shopping centers in Emerson, Washington Township, and Wyckoff, to home sales away from the centers’ influence. His professional and EXPERT opinion is: “That this project, when completed as planned, will not have a significant impact on the nearby properties.”
Residents, including myself, seriously doubted the validity of Sussman’s analysis feeling that the scope and focus were narrow, and the results were SKEWED DUE TO BIAS.
During cross-examination, resident after resident brought Sussman’s credibility into question by exposing his inadequate comparisons, substandard comparables, and lack of diligence in compiling the supporting data for his analysis.
I am collectively crediting the body of EVIDENCE that our bright and capable crowd of questioners produced. In order of appearance: Austin Ashley’s attorney Marc Liebman, Lori Barton, Michael Gadaleta, Ulises Cabrera, Miriam Pickett, Tom Belthoff, John Rutledge, Rick Mide, Emily Rostkowski, Jose Camacho, Scott Gifford, Mary McElroy, Casey Hittel, Denise Vollmar, John DeSantis, and all the Zoning Board members who contributed on this particular evening, especially Joe Loonam, Peter Rebsch, and Joseph Binetti.
Following are the results of their efforts:
* Sussman provided three comparisons for his analysis. One of them, Boulder Run in Wyckoff, is not valid because the sale of the subject home (across from the shopping center) took place before the center was expanded. That sale could not have been influenced by the shopping center’s existence since it wasn’t there.
Sussman claims that the buyers of that property were fully aware that the shopping center was coming before they purchased the house. “They went to town hall,” he said. “They looked at the plans. They saw exactly what was coming.” I have to say that seeing a plan is one thing, experiencing the reality is another.
We visited this home used in Sussman’s analysis, and spoke with the owner. She said they bought the home before the shopping center was built. SHE IN MY OPINION IS THE EXPERT WITNESS. She is living the impact of Hekemian’s development, and it’s a nightmare:
“The trees and shrubs they planted in place of the hundreds of trees they killed will take hundreds of years beyond our life expectancy to grow and shield the hideous view of the shopping center. Tractor-trailer traffic is awful. They are not supposed to use the entrance/exit directly across from my house but there is no sign or instruction to tell them otherwise. The truck headlights glare directly into our windows and the rumble of gear shifting rattles the windows in our house every time they pull in and out.”
They finally had to spend thousands out of their own pocket to put a buffer in to help lessen the impact. She also said they recently had to have the house appraised and the person who did it said the house would have been valued for less had they not put the buffer in BECAUSE OF ITS LOCATION DIRECTLY ACROSS FROM THE SHOPPING CENTER.
* Sussman didn’t find true comparisons. “It’s almost impossible to do that,” Sussman told Jose Camacho. When Mike Gadaleta asked Sussman if Boulder run compares, “16 units to 221 units.” Sussman said: “I WOULD LOVE TO FIND A SHOPPING CENTER PROPERTY WITH 221 UNITS ON THE SAME LOT, I CAN’T FIND IT, I DON’T THINK IT EXISTS….” (The major-league point here being that apparently the wee town of New Milford is about to break new ground. Lucky us, we are the first tiny municipality to have such a GARGANTUAN, mixed-use, over-development in just such a configuration!)
“You analyzed three sets of data,” Scott Gifford, a New Milford resident, said to Sussman. “There is nothing going on right now across from these homes. What is the relevance of your report to our situation? We don’t have an existing shopping center. It’s apples to oranges. What we have here is much different than what was reported on.”
* The analysis only included homes directly facing the shopping centers (as if massive traffic, overcrowding of schools, and increased flooding could not possibly affect home values around the corner, or downstream).
* Sussman used data from the “height of the real estate bubble.”
“Unprecedented economic times have an impact on the values,” Oradell resident Tom Belthoff told Sussman….In 2007 I could sell an outhouse as an estate and have a bidding war.”
“It was a different market,” Jose Camacho said. “Inventory of houses available was minimal…It was a seller’s market. In a down market the buyer has more choices.”
* Sussman did not analyze more current data.
The subject sale used for the Washington Township location, for instance, sold in 2005 for $370,000. The same home sold again in 2010 for $253.500
Sussman chose not to use this more current sale. It’s no wonder. Its a whopping $116,500 less. Had he used this sale, it would have painted the wrong picture. Because as he said: “If I did this analysis and I found [comparables] selling for $100,000 more, I would have had to call Mr. Eisdorfer and said, “I can’t help you guys out.”
* Sussman didn’t appraise the houses in his analysis. He didn’t value them. In other words, he did not use his EXPERT appraisal skills to do this job, he used his rusty broker skills. Perhaps this task would have been better done by an active real estate broker.
Jose Camacho pointed out that as an appraiser, Sussman hasn’t had to deal with buyer’s and client’s concerns. “I’m not selling homes though I did a long time ago,” Sussman said. (And that explains why you’re so detached from the conditions that impact values Mr. Sussman. That’s the most decent explanation anyway….)
* Sussman failed to factor in how long the houses were on the market before selling. That is, whether the homes directly across from the shopping centers took longer to sell than the ones removed from the influence of the shopping centers.
* Properties used for Sussman’s comparables were listed in the MLS or on the SR1-A forms as fixer uppers, “as-in” condition, needs TLC, as unusable unspecified reason, transfer of convenience, second sale by guardian trust, property owner lives in Florida, in a flood plain needing flood insurance, etc. (what a mess.) This data was excluded from Sussman’s report. (One might conclude that Sussman picked distressed sales or less than prime comparables. He sits on the West Orange Zoning Board, maybe he’s used to people not showing up.)
Defending the fact that these types of things don’t affect value, Sussman said: “My dad passed away a couple of years ago and left the house in estate. My sister and I sold it FOR EVERY PENNY WE COULD GET. WE DIDN’T GIVE IT AWAY. THE WAY THINGS ARE TODAY, MOST PEOPLE DO THAT.
* Marc Liebman found 15 other sales that Sussman could have used for his comparables, yet Sussman had selected the home with the lowest sale. “I did not set out to pick the lowest sales,” he said to Liebman. (So what then prompted Sussman to choose those particular homes that just so happened to serve his client’s goal? Coincidence? Lack of time to put toward the effort?) As Liebman said, Sussman “ignored the entire universe of sales.”
* Though Sussman claims he is not biased, he couldn’t give straightforward answers to simple questions like, “What factors determine long-term value,” asked by Mary McElroy. And whether “a house has more value on a quiet street vs. on a busy street.”
“It's the real estate agents' mantra: location, location, location…It means identical homes can increase or decrease in value due to location…It's the number one rule in real estate….” http://homebuying.about.com/od/marketfactstrends/qt/013008_location.htm
* Sussman didn’t take into account that the schools are currently overcrowded, and once this massive eyesore is installed, they will be stretched beyond their limits. (Who wants to buy a home in a town where the schools are crammed full?)
* Sussman’s analysis did not consider infrastructure, pollution, traffic, flooding, affordable housing, and the disruptive period of building the over-development.
* When Ulises Cabrera questioned whether Sussman’s analysis was flawed, Sussman said: “My analysis is not flawed.”
Well maybe “flawed” is not exactly the right word. A fly was zooming around Sussman’s head, and he swatted at it.
Whoowie, that’s quite a bit…
Sussman agreed with Oradell resident Tom Belthoff, “It is not an exact science.” Sussman also admitted it is possible that the results could be “SIGNIFICANTLY different” depending on the type of appraiser doing the appraisal.
I would like to add to that, that the results can be significantly different depending on who is paying for those results. I wonder if NM hired him as our expert, would he have come up with the same results?
The pertinent question is: Is Sussman’s analysis the work of an expert, the work of an amateur, the work of someone who cares enough to do a conscientious job, or the work of someone who wants to please his client?
“YOU SELECTED THE ONES YOU SELECTED BASED UPON WHAT YOU WERE HIRED TO DO, CORRECT?” Marc Liebman asked Sussman.
“No, absolutely not!” Sussman said.
Bias is: A preference or an inclination, especially one that inhibits impartial judgment; A statistical sampling or testing error caused by systematically favoring some outcomes over others -- as defined by the freedictionary.com. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/bias
Other Notable Highlights
When Michael Gadaleta asked Sussman what his degree was in, Sussman said, “Psychology.” Yet his Lehigh education was used to qualify him as an expert. How does a degree in psychology contribute to being an expert in land evaluation? As John Rutledge pointed out, in college Sussman “didn’t learn anything that would teach him to be an appraiser.”
* * *
When Lori Barton asked, “How would you say a 221-unit, multi-level complex will fit into the character of this neighborhood?” Sussman was quick to say he “was talking about the design characteristic…the description was based on the aesthetics. Obviously there is nothing of that size in the neighborhood…it is not similar to anything that exists there now.” (Oh goodie, the design will fit, but the scale, activity and noise level won’t. That’s a relief. I got news for ya Sussman: The woods that Hekemian is ripping down didn’t clash either.)
* * *
John DeSantis asked Sussman, “If given a choice would you buy a house across from a large development, or on a quiet street…identical houses, same price.” Sussman said, “I WOULD PROBABLY BUY THE HOUSE ON THE QUIET STREET.” (Given the choice, who wouldn’t? Except for those people who are addicted to honking noises, blaring lights, and tractor-trailer trucks gearing up and down the road.) Sussman threw us a bone. Maybe Scott Gifford’s comment that, “It turns our lives upside down” got to him. I know it made me sad.
Questions from the Zoning Board
Zoning Board member Joe Loonam asked Sussman if there were different uses of land that would positively or negatively affect home values. “Yes, there are some,” he said. “Industrial-use smokestacks spewing smoke and creating a lot of noise…and SCHOOLS…some people love ‘em…and other people don’t want to be so close to a school because they don’t like the noise when the kids are coming and going.” (Interesting choices. And I suppose the massive activity this circus is going to bring -- cars and trucks and condensed groups of people coming and going -- is going to be noiseless, right?)
Sussman added, “Community shopping centers I don’t think have a significant impact either way because people need the stores.” (Oh come on Sussman. I’m not an EXPERT, but since when does how much you need a thing affect how much that thing will impact you if it decides to park itself in your front yard?)
(To the New Milford residents who are in direct proximity of this looming disaster: I GOT A IDEA! When you decide to SELL because you’re overwhelmed by the megalopolis that’s sprouted up in close proximity to your home, Sussman is the man to do your appraisal. Shopping developments, multi-level apartment complexes, affordable housing, highways, 18-wheelers traversing through your once-quiet residential neighborhood, even being in a flood plain -- as far as he’s concerned, none of these value elements will negatively impact the value of your home. “The analysis shows me that they don’t,” he says. Well, if that’s what his hard data tells him, he should be able to stand behind these assertions for the rest of his life -- not just when it suits him and his billion dollar client. KEEP THAT IN MIND, IT COULD COME IN HANDY Y’ALL!)
Zoning Board member Peter Rebsch asked Sussman how many times he had been hired by Hekemian. Sussman said, “As far as I can recall, this is the first.” (What the heck is that supposed to mean? It’s as if the question was requiring some insider knowledge that he didn’t have.) Rebsch also echoed the incredulity of this over-development keeping in character with the neighborhood, and commented on the huge impact it would have -- a huge complex being next to the high school where people are hanging out, trucks going by, and the flooding. “The value will not go down?” he said to Sussman. “I just can’t believe that.”
Zoning Board member Joseph Binetti said he is a realtor selling real estate for 10 years. He was approached by residents who feel their home values and properties will be adversely affected by this project. “This is a major problem for the surrounding residents in this town,” he said. “Their property values WILL be affected.”
DelVecchio wants Joe bumped from the hearings due to a conflict of interest.
Really? A conflict of interest? What’s his basis? That Joe is a Realtor? That he has New Milford residents running to him as a result of DelVecchio and his client’s threat to our community? That these residents are unhappy about the fact that their lifes’ work and equity in their homes will be radically diminished. That as a knowledgeable, experienced Realtor, Joe feels the values of those homes will be affected? Joe can’t prevent people from approaching him to sell their homes -- that’s his job.
Is it possible you’re just unhappy with the fact that things don’t seem to be going your way Antimomo? Or are you just laying your foundation for dragging New Milford through the court system at an expense these stressed and struggling people can’t afford, as was done to the residents of Cranford?
How about this Mr. DelVecchio: We would like to have you removed from our hometown because we “object” to you and your so-called experts. Person after person is getting up there and telling you that you are going to be hurting them, but you are callously proceeding because you don’t share their priority. Real men make a living without hurting people, so you and your EXPERTS gather up your tutus please and flounce out of here. Leave New Milford alone.
Alas, Mr. Sussman will be coming back for re-direct, since as one of the NM residents said, “This guy is swiss cheese.” Holes everywhere. DelVecchio has some plugging to do. The next meeting is scheduled for July 21st at 7:30.
More to come, stay tuned…
p.s. As a result of the efforts of SOD, Oradell sent a very competent representative from their hometown. Thank you Oradell, THANK YOU Tom Belthoff, and thank you SOD!
p.s.s. A man who I sat next to during the meeting and walked out with (and it turns out went to school with – hi D) said he was surprised that more New Milford residents weren’t angry. That’s because it’s not on their skin. Yet.
p.s.s.s. Every time I do a search on Hekemian, I uncover another political contribution from one Hekemian or another, to one party or the other. Very generous these Hekemians.