MIDDLETOWN – The township committee has agreed to allow Trinity Hall girls school to continue using a township-owned site, even though the state has yet to make the final call.The Township Committee on March 30 approved a lease amendment to allow Trinity Hall religion-based all girls private school that for nearly two school years now has been using the township-owned Croydon Hall, 872 Leonardville Road, in the township’s Leonardo section. Trinity Hall continues to be embroiled in a legal battle with area residents objecting to the school’s permanent campus/facility plans and who are challenging the township approval in state Superior Court. The township committee’s actions last month, however, were seemingly done without the expressed approval of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the department’s Green Acres program. Croydon Hall sits on township property that is designated as township park land in its open space inventory, requiring state approval for any non-recreational or conservation use, DEP spokeswoman Caryn Shinske said on April 16. At that point, Shinske said “To date the township has not requested nor has Green Acres approved an extension of the initial lease period.”Township attorney Brian Nelson contradicted that characterization, maintaining the original lease agreement contained a provision for an extension and said there have been conversations with the DEP since that time, believing an additional request was unnecessary. “It depends on who you talk to down there as to what story you get,” Nelson said of DEP officials in Trenton.The school’s lease is set to expire on May 1, after initially given a two-year period, the maximum allowed under Green Acres rules, according to Shinske. The township and the school could seek one six-month extension, “upon showing good cause” for it, Shinske continued.The resolution amending the original lease allows for a two-year time in total, calculating based upon the school’s actual use of the building not on calendar days, given school isn’t in session for summers, holidays and vacation breaks. According to the resolution the lease would extend until May 31, 2016, with an option to renew it for another 365 days or until May 31, 2017, whichever occurs first. The school would pay the township $21,500 a month for the remainder of the lease.On Monday, April 20, Shinske in an email reiterated the DEP’s position that the township hadn’t been in contact with her department on this matter. But the next day, she revised the position, noting Nelson and the township administrator, Anthony Mercantante, “have indicated to us they will be working on a request for an extension with our regulations and we are confident we will reach an agreement within the next few weeks.”Nelson said on April 21 that he and Mercantante “were putting together the documents,” to send to the DEP based upon a conversation they had with the DEP in the week of April 13. He has sent a letter to the DEP’s Jessica Patterson, Bureau of Legal Services and Stewardship for the Green Acre’s program, formally requesting the extension – a full three weeks after the township formally approved the extension.Trinity Hall, a high school that has a Roman Catholic religious-based and academic curriculum, hopes to construct its permanent campus using approximately half of a roughly 67-acre undeveloped and largely wooded property on Chapel Hill Road. The plans have been mired in controversy, while proponents insist this is an appropriate and beneficial use, homeowners in the residential Chapel Hill Road area continue to object, believing a school that may ultimately be able to accommodate as many as 500 students is too intense of a use and poses environmental and traffic concerns.The township planning board, after months of lengthy and at times contentious hearings, denied the application last June. The school appealed to the Superior Court, which struck down a provision of a township ordinance remanding it back to the local board. The board on second blush approved the plans. And now objectors are fighting that approval in Superior Court.Superior Court Judge Paul A. Kapalko, who made the first ruling in this matter last year, is scheduled to hear this on Friday.“This is a girls’ high school we’re talking about,” this week said John Giunco, the lawyer representing Trinity Hall. “This is clearly a beneficial use and one that offers much for the community.”Giunco said he’s had conversations with the DEP over the course of time and believes the extension is justified given the delays caused by the ongoing litigation. “This is a self-imposed hardship, in effect,” on the school by the objectors, he said.Both Nelson and Giunco noted Trinity Hall had made about $300,000 worth of renovations to the existing structure, bringing it up to current use codes and requirements for the township’s aging and underused building.
“The township pretty firmly believes there is such a significant public benefit for this lease arrangement we believe it’s justifiable to extend the lease,” Nelson said.Ron Gasiorowski, a Red Bank lawyer representing the objectors, said the lease agreement “is really highly unusual,” given how it’s calculated and the township’s failure to obtain state approval.“The town attempted to avoid having the DEP weigh in on this and now they kind of got caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” Gasiorowski alleged. “They should realize the rules apply to everybody.”Trinity Hall is in the process of obtaining final construction approvals for its future construction, Giunco said.– By John BurtonJohn Burton can be reached at [email protected] and 732-219-5788.