Ethics Complaint Filed Against Councilwoman Denise Belcher

Last week, an ethics complaint was filed against Councilwoman Denise Belcher in connection with an Application for a zoning variance before the Township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The property at 61 Church Street was zoned as a residential property and housed St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.  The property is 1.3 acres and a new applicant wished to use it as a school for 100 students.
[note: the property had been abandoned for many years at the time of the application]

Of note, the property was used by the Teaneck Board of Education in the 1970s (the high point in terms of Teaneck’s population) to deal with an overpopulation issue in the district (at the time the district had over 8,000+ students, more than double today’s numbers).

In response to changing demographics, the Council instituted a set of racist and hurtful rules that were specifically designed to keep new residents, such as Blacks or Orthodox Jews from getting a foothold in the township.

One of the rules required that schools would need 10 acres + 1 additional acre per 100 students.  That rule, still on the books, required the applicant to seek a waiver for the 11 acres the Building department said was necessary.

Let’s be very clear.  Compared to existing schools, the closest in terms of size would be TCCS with 1.33 acres (spot-on match) and with 350 students, they are FAR below the required space.  The 350 students alone would require FOUR ADDITIONAL acres beyond the initial 5 necessary.

Teaneck High School?  At 12.97 acres, and with 1,239 students, they would require 10 acres + an additional 12 acres = 22 acres.  Teaneck High School is  TEN ACRES too small according to the rules for which the Applicant was being held.

But being in favor of a once racist policy as soon is suits you, is merely reprehensible… not unethical according to State Ethics rules.

Sadly for Teaneck and the Applicant, that’s not where Councilwoman Belcher stopped.

Zoning Board Appearance

Councilwoman Belcher came before the Zoning Board of Adjustment as a representative of the East Votee Neighborhood Association.  The Applicant’s attorney addressed her directly twice during her remarks as “Councilwoman Belcher.” This clearly indicated that the Applicant’s attorney understood that a Member of the Township Council was opposing the Application

On February 5, 2023, three days after the first public hearing held by the Board of Adjustment concerning the Application, Councilwoman Belcher and Gervonn Rice received an email from Councilmember Mark Schwartz concerning the Application that stated “[t]he above applicant reached out to me this evening in the hopes of arranging a sit down with you both after hearing you represent the community at the Board of Adjustment meeting this past week.” (Emphasis supplied.)

On February 27, 2023, Councilwoman Belcher received an email from Vincent Brevetti, another member of the East Votee Neighborhood Association, that requested “[p]lease call me so we may discuss legal implications concerning 61 Church St.” (Emphasis supplied.)

In an email dated March 1, 2023, Councilwoman Belcher stated that “[t]his invitation is extended to you from the EVNA (East Votee Neighborhood Association) for you to attend in support of the neighbor’s effort to reject this proposed application.” (Emphasis supplied.) The email further stated that “[t]his is the second meeting since the 1st introductory meeting in February, since then the neighbors have researched and mobilized and are vehemently against this application.” (Emphasis supplied.) As used in that email, the term “neighbor” is referring to the East Votee Neighborhood Association.

What is clear from all four of these exchanges concerning the Church Street Property is that Councilwoman Belcher was acting on behalf of the East Votee Neighborhood Association in her official capacity in her active opposition to the Application. Councilwoman Belcher was not just speaking “as a neighbor in the Northeast.” See Wyzykowski v. Rizas, 132 N.J. 509

After the applicant pulled the application looking to find a home elsewhere, Councilwoman Belcher wasn’t done.  She wanted to make sure she approved of any FUTURE applicant for the property.  A message was sent by a local email list (for which previous version indicated Belcher was a Supporter) stating:

“But we’re not done! Moving forward a team of residents is partnering with the current property owner with the goal of identifying a suitable project that will enhance our neighborhood. If you are on the East Votee Neighborhood Association (EVNA) mailing list, we will keep you informed regarding any developments.”
[via Teaneck Voices where Denise Belcher was listed as a Supporter on the Masthead]

After the East Votee Neighborhood Association members were made aware that the current application was withdrawn, they stated: “First, until we know that the 61 Church Street site will be developed responsibly, in ways that preserve our neighborhood, we must remain mobilized and continue our work together. We cannot let our guard down. Whatever is proposed next, needs to be compatible with our neighborhood.”

At that point, to ensure that the new applicant for the property was approved by Belcher, she became (through her Real Estate firm) the listing agent for the property.

Any and all applicants for the property were to go through Belcher.

Let’s be clear about what this issue reveals:

A Councilwoman who appoints the members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment (several members who appeared in favor of the application were not appointed a few months later), who makes zoning affecting Teaneck residents, who is working on the Master Plan which will guide zoning and variance decisions… that individual appeared on behalf of others to influence the Zoning Board against an application and then became the Agent, making thousands of dollars in commission (the building sold for $2.4M).

When you have control of zoning decisions, the ability to replace (or not replace) members of statutory boards, advocate on behalf of others and make money after stating you will ensure you approve of particular buyers and users of the property… you now have an ethics issue.

In response, Belcher said that she understands ethics and the obligation to ensure no conflicts exist.  Referring to the complaint, she stated the “targeted attacks” are simply divisive, they are hate-filled and they are discriminatory.
Ms. Belcher, you will not find a discriminatory word in the complaint, as it’s irrelevant to the manifest problems.

I suggest you read it.

Belcher Complaint with Exhibits