Comptroller: Burlco mayor used position to profit on land deal

Posted: January 29, 2013

The New Jersey comptroller is recommending strengthening the state's ethics laws after an investigation revealed that a longtime Burlington County official misused his position to reap hundreds of thousands of dollars from a nationally recognized farmland preservation program he helped create.

Comptroller A. Matthew Boxer said Tuesday that a probe into Chesterfield Township's program revealed that Lawrence C. Durr, a former mayor and planning board member, profited by using "his political influence and insider knowledge to push a complicated development project through multiple governmental hurdles."

Durr, a Republican, did not disclose that he had more than $1 million at stake when he went before the township committee and planning board to propose significant changes in the program and then voted on several to further a lucrative land deal more than six years ago, Boxer said.

The comptroller's investigation sheds light on the "potential conflicts" planning board members might have when they vote on growth and development issues, Boxer said in a statement. Following Hurricane Sandy, these boards will play a greater role in rebuilding the region, making careful attention to potential conflicts even more critical, he said.

Durr, a retired farmer who served on the township committee between 1991 and December 2011, did not return several calls for comment. His wife, Carol, said he was "out on the tractor" and could not answer his cellphone.

Township Solicitor John Gillespie, who has advised the committee for 25 years, said, "I've never known anyone who gave back more to the community than Larry." He declined to give his opinion of Boxer's findings.

Boxer said he planned to refer the matter to the Division of Criminal Justice for possible prosecution. He also is recommending legislative reforms.

The $500 maximum penalty that local officials face for ethics law violations should be raised to $10,000, the fine that state employees face, Boxer said.

"When more than a million dollars is at stake, a $500 fine becomes merely a cost of doing business," he said.

Durr, 63, ended up with a $200,000 profit and a clear title to 100 acres of preserved farmland after he entered into a deal with Renaissance Properties Inc. and then helped the developer move the project along, according to Boxer's 21-page report.

In a 2009 interview with The Inquirer, Durr said that he did not view his actions as a conflict of interest. "If there were mistakes made, they were unintentional," he said.

"If you're going to serve your community, which is what I feel I have done for the last 18 years, you can't be precluded from participating in what's allowed in the town," he said.

He was referring to the town's Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, created to preserve farmland by clustering development in a designated area.

Under the program, developers would pay farmers the difference between what their land was worth in its agricultural state and its value as developed property. The farmers would agree to preserve the land and the developers would be given credits for the amount they paid, which they would then use to build units in the designated growth area.

Durr agreed to sell development rights to Renaissance for $2 million and then made it easier for the developer to build the number of units that he wanted. Old York Village has about 600 homes.

At a July 20, 2006, meeting, Durr "stepped down from the planning board dais" and gave a presentation to urge the board to grant more credits to the developer. The additional credits, worth $666,000 to Durr under his agreement with the developer, were approved unanimously by the board. As a committeeman, he had approved the appointments of the six board members, the report said.

Frederick Hardt, the planning board solicitor at the time, could not be reached for comment.

"An analysis of the potential conflict should have been taken by the board," the report said. Durr also asked the township committee to vote in 2007 on actions that eventually cleared the way for the housing project, the report said.

Last fall, the township committee adopted a policy that requires officials to disclose any potential conflicts of interest on agenda items at the beginning of each meeting, Gillespie said. He also plans to discuss Boxer's report at the next committee meeting.

In an e-mail, Mayor Rich LoCascio said that he joined the township committee years after the 2007 vote and that he is "confident that our current municipal staff honorably carry out their duties to our residents every day."

Boxer's report concluded that Durr "improperly used his government position in facilitating a private land deal that brought him significant financial benefits." The report said Durr could be prosecuted for official misconduct, for violating the ethics laws, and for failing to note the income he got from the land deal on financial disclosure statements that officials are required to file.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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