A spokesperson for Jerramiah Healy confirmed last week that the Jersey City mayor and others in his administration have met with the owners of Damascus Bakery about the possibility of moving their business there instead of Secaucus.
A move to Jersey City would, in many ways, be a victory for Secaucus residents who have argued for more than a year that the proposed site for Damascus in town would pose a health and safety hazard to the community.
However, if the bakery selects a location outside of Secaucus, rather than an alternative site here, the town will also have lost an expanding business that may have brought jobs to the area.
“Yes, we have had conversations with Damascus Bakery,” said Healy spokesperson Jennifer Morrill. “However, no official document (like a lease agreement) has been filed with the city to date.”
These conversations included meetings between bakery co-owner David Mafoud and Jersey City Deputy Mayor Rosemary McFadden.
Morrill added that Jersey City would be “delighted” to have the bakery move there, but was reluctant to say more since no formal agreement has been made between the city and Damascus.
David Mafoud and his brother Edward, with whom he co-owns the family business, have considered moving to other towns in New Jersey, but Jersey City appears to be a leading contender for the new site at this time.
“Yes, I have heard that they have had meetings with other towns, but I don’t know any details at this time,” said Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell. “All I can say is that we are proceeding as if nothing has changed. Since we haven’t heard anything about their plans changing, we assume they are still planning to move to the 10 Enterprise Ave. in Secaucus.”
When reached for comment David Mafoud declined to speak on the record about Damascus Bakery’s situation with Secaucus and meetings with other towns.
Damascus Bakery still has a pending application on file with the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) for the Secaucus site. The NJMC is unaware of any plans to move the bakery to another location.
Controversy began last year
In March 2007, Damascus Bakery, a Brooklyn-based company that primarily makes pita bread and other flat breads, applied for a zoning permit from the NJMC to renovate a warehouse at 10 Enterprise Avenue and move its headquarters there. With the support of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Damascus Bakery vowed to bring “a substantial” number of jobs to the area, according to documents filed by the company’s owners. The NJMC is a state-run agency which controls zoning over 88 percent of Secaucus. The NJMC soon granted the Mafouds a zoning permit in May 2007.
But some residents became concerned when they realized the wholesale bakery would be located 50 feet from the nearest residence and approximately 500 feet from the Clarendon School. Commercial traffic, rodent infestation, and noise were among the initial concerns raised by residents. More recently, Mayor Elwell has alleged that high concentrations of flour can be explosive and has noted that the bakery could be a fire hazard.
Although Elwell has stated that he does not want Damascus to move to Enterprise Ave., he has said he is open to having the bakery relocate to the industrial section of Secaucus.
“I don’t have a problem with the bakery, per se,” Elwell said. “It’s the location. I just don’t think the Enterprise site is suitable for that type of business. I’d be more comfortable with Damascus Bakery in another section of town where they are further away from residences and a school.” The town has since filed a lawsuit to block Damascus from moving to the site approved by the NJMC.
Damascus has filed its own lawsuit against Elwell and other town officials, alleging that it has lost more than $5 million because it has been unable to move to the larger space and expand its business as planned.
Mayor Elwell has long argued that he was not informed of the bakery’s plans to move to Secaucus until after the NJMC had already approved the zoning certificate. In addition, he believes the NJMC should have held public hearings in Secaucus regarding the bakery’s plans for the Enterprise Ave. site.
That no public hearings were held prior to the application approval is a point of fact agreed upon by all parties involved.
But Elwell’s contention that he had no knowledge of the bakery’s discussions with the NJMC is a matter of dispute.
Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli, a political rival of Elwell’s and a NJMC commissioner, has noted in the past that the mayor heads up the NJMC mayors’ committee. This committee is purportedly privy to all pending decisions being considered by the NJMC. In addition, Secaucus Construction Official Vincent Prieto, an Elwell ally, should have been involved in several conversations about Damascus’ application before the NJMC approved the zoning certificate in May 2007.
Whatever the truth, Elwell has used the certificate approval as an example of the NJMC’s alleged disregard for Secaucus. Earlier this year, for example he wrote a letter to Gov. Jon Corzine requesting that Secaucus be removed from the NJMC’s jurisdiction, citing the situation with Damascus.
In his letter to the governor, dated March 6, Elwell wrote: “Since 1973…the Town will have sent in excess of $63,000,000 to the [NJMC]. One would assume, that with Secaucus sending this much money to the [NJMC], the Meadowlands Commission would make every effort to work cooperatively, diligently, and professionally with the Town; however, this is not always the case…Presently, the [NJMC] is attempting to allow a commercial bakery to operate within 500 feet of an elementary school. With more than 210,000 pounds of flour being stored in silos on premises, the commercial bakery is considered a ‘high hazard’ use by federal standards and unless it is setback more than 2,100 feet from the nearest property is in violation of federal standards.”
A spokesman for Gov. Corzine said no decision has been made regarding Elwell’s request to remove Secaucus from the NJMC’s jurisdiction. The Damascus controversy was poised to cast a shadow over the 2009 Secaucus mayoral race, given Elwell’s strained relationship with the NJMC and the fact that his biggest challenger next year may come from Gonnelli, a NJMC commissioner.
If Damascus bolts for another town, however, Elwell may lose the opportunity to capitalize on the controversy once it has ceased to be an issue.
Comments on this story can be sent to: Awright@hudsonreporter.com.