Former Chesterfield mayor indicted in development program

Former mayor Lawrence Durr
Former mayor Lawrence Durr
Posted: June 28, 2014

The former longtime mayor of rural Chesterfield Township has been indicted on charges of official misconduct after allegedly using his positions on the township committee and the planning board to profit from a nationally recognized farmland preservation program he helped launch.

Lawrence C. Durr, a retired Burlington County farmer who sat on the township committee for 20 years - including seven as mayor - could face up to 10 years in state prison over a land deal in which he received $372,500 in profits from a developer and then helped smooth the approval process for the project, according to the New Jersey Attorney General's Office.

Durr, 63, also could be fined as much as $4 million, or double the amount he allegedly received in the $2,372,500 deal, which also included a 104-acre farm adjacent to his home.

The indictment, announced this week, stems from a 2013 report by then-state Comptroller Matthew Boxer, who said at the time that Durr profited by using both "political influence and insider knowledge to push a complicated development project through multiple governmental hurdles." In a statement, acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman said, "There is no place in government for self-dealing and we will continue to work hard to root it out."

Durr, a Republican, did not return a call for comment. He had decided against running again in 2011, after an Inquirer story explored his financial relationship with the developer, Renaissance Properties Inc., and his votes on the Old York Village project.

His attorney, James J. Gerrow Jr., said Thursday the indictment "reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of local government in New Jersey" and how the farmland preservation program works. "Larry Durr never betrayed his oath as mayor, or a member of council," but helped create a program that saved acres of farmland and clustered a village with a new school in another part of the township, Gerrow said.

Gerrow said that Durr was an "astute businessman" who had earned money by selling farmland credits, and that his role as mayor and committeeman did not bring in extra profits. In 2004, the program that grew out of a Burlington County pilot project won a national award for farmland preservation.

The indictment says that when Durr proposed that the township committee and planning board make significant changes to the preservation program, he failed to disclose that he had a financial interest in how it was implemented and that the changes could increase his profit. He also voted on some of these measures, which furthered the land deals he had made with Renaissance in 2006 and 2007, according to the indictment.

Durr ended up with a clear title to 104 acres of preserved farmland now valued at about $500,000, plus a $372,500 profit, the Attorney General's Office said.

In a 2009 interview, Durr said 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 . . . you can't be precluded from participating in what's allowed in the town."

Durr was referring to the township's Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program, created to preserve farmland by clustering development. Chesterfield and Lumberton Townships were selected to participate in Burlington County's pilot TDR program about 15 years ago, and became a model for the country.

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 $2.4 million and then made it easier for the developer to build the number of units that the company wanted. Old York Village has about 600 homes, but many more were planned before the housing crisis hit.

According to the indictment, 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 voted in favor of the appointments of the six board members, according to the comptroller's report.

Durr also asked the township committee to vote in 2007 on actions that eventually cleared the way for the housing project, according to the indictment.


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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