Sunday, April 9, 2017

West Amwell fire company member, business owner sues mayor and committeeman for defamation; challenges land use denial.

On January 6, 2017, a member of West Amwell's volunteer fire company filed a defamation lawsuit against the Township's mayor and one of its Committee members for calling him a liar during a public Township Committee meeting and claiming that he "violat[ed] multiple fire codes on his property with disregard to the public [which] makes a mockery of fire safety."  On February 17, 2017, the fire company member, a contract purchaser of a Mill Road facility "used for weddings and other social assemblage purposes," filed a separate lawsuit claiming that West Amwell officials unreasonably prevented him from continuing to hold weddings and banquets at the facility after he purchased it.

The plaintiff in both lawsuits is Zachary Lubchansky.  In his defamation lawsuit against West Amwell Mayor Zachary T. Rich and Committeeman Stephen Bergenfield, Lubchansky claimed that two officials defamed him during the Township Committee's September 7, 2016 public meeting.

The minutes of that meeting reflect that Bergenfield made a motion to revoke the Township Committee's August 19, 2015 approval of Lubchansky's membership in the West Amwell Fire Company "based on not living here, lying on his application, and violating multiple fire codes on his property with disregard to the public."  Rich seconded the motion which passed unanimously. According to the meeting minutes, the Fire Company had thirty days to revoke Lubchansky’s membership and if it did not, the Fire Company's "funding is in jeopardy." 

Lubchansky said that the accusations against him are false, that no open fire code violations were pending at the time of the meeting and that the accusations have caused him both financial loss and a loss of his reputation and standing in the community.

In their answer to the complaint, Bergenfield and Rich denied most of the allegations and asserted, among other defenses, that Lubchansky "selectively quoted certain words out of context" and is a public figure who is required to show that any defamatory statements were uttered with actual malice.

In the land use matter, Lubchansky claimed that his wedding and banquet facility has historically been used for weddings and other public functions and complied with all Township zoning codes.  He claimed that prior to acquiring the property, he met with Township officials and was assured that the property could continue to be used for weddings and banquets.  But, Lubchansky claimed that "after [he] had conducted several weddings on the Property, [he was] told that the Property could not be used for weddings and other social assemblage purposes."  The lawsuit claims that Lubchansky's May 21, 2016 application for a use variance was denied on January 24, 2017 after three hearings conducted by the Township's Zoning Board of Adjustment.  Lubchansky claimed that the Board's decision "was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable."

Lubchansky is represented in the land use matter by Arnold C. Lakind of Lawrenceville and in the defamation matter by Michael T. Hollister of Philadelphia.  Representing Rich and Bergenfield in the defamation action is Richard P. Cushing of Clinton.