Former Chesterfield Mayor Lawrence Durr
REPORT FROM THE BURLINGTON COUNTY TIMES
CHESTERFIELD — An investigation by the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller has determined that former Mayor Lawrence Durr improperly used his positions on the Township Committee and Planning Board to help him net a nearly $200,000 profit on a land deal involving the local preservation
Comptroller Matthew Boxer released the findings of his investigation in a report Tuesday which recommended that fines for local government ethics violations be significantly increased and that officials be provided additional guidance on potential conflicts of interest.
Boxer also referred his office’s findings to the state Division of Criminal Justice to determine whether Durr’s actions warrant criminal prosecution.
“The actions taken by Durr were unethical under state law and, in addition, potentially violated the criminal law concerning official misconduct,” Boxer wrote in the report. “In New Jersey, public officials who exercise their official influence over matters in which they have a conflict of interest commit a crime when they do so with the purpose to benefit themselves or others.”
Durr did not immediately return phone messages requesting comment on the report. The retired farmer had served on the Township Committee since 1991 but did not seek re-election in November. His term ended Dec. 31.
The comptroller’s report found that Durr violated local government ethics laws on several occasions by “using his political influence and insider knowledge to push a complicated development project through multiple governmental hurdles. All the while, Durr shielded the fact that he personally had more than a million dollars at stake in the outcome.”
The land deal involved the township's Transfer of Development Rights program, a land preservation and growth management program that has received national recognition.
Under a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, landowners in preservation areas are permitted to voluntarily sell development credits to builders in exchange for restricting their properties by deed against development. In return, developers use those credits to build at higher densities in designated growth zones, called receiving areas.
The method essentially directs development to areas where it is desired while simultaneously preserving other areas at the developers’ expense rather than taxpayers'.
The comptroller’s report said Durr negotiated a land deal with a developer in May 2006 to sell the development credits on 107 acres of farmland he had purchased earlier that year in the township’s preservation area.
Durr later represented himself before the Planning Board during a hearing at which he asked the board to increase the number of development credits assigned to his land, and he also used his position as a Township Committee member to intervene with county officials to auction more credits to the developer without revealing his financial interest in the matter, the report said.
Later, in April 2007, Durr voted as a Township Committee member in favor of an amendment to the municipality's TDR law that reduced the necessary credits the developer needed to proceed with its project, saving the developer about $1.1 million, the report said.
Durr later closed on the sale of $2.37 million in TDR credits to the developer, the largest amount ever received by a Chesterfield landowner in the history of its TDR program. The investment yielded him a profit of nearly $200,000 as well as a debt-free title to the 107 acres of preserved farmland.
Boxer said Durr’s actions were unethical and a threat to the credibility of the land preservation program.
“What happened here was akin to insider trading,” he said in a statement. “It is vital for the future credibility of TDR as a land-use strategy that those responsible for its administration not use their privileged position for personal advantage.”
The report recommended that fines for violations of local government ethics laws be increased from a maximum $500 to $10,000.
“When more than a million dollars is at stake, a $500 fine becomes merely a cost of doing business,” Boxer said.
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