St. Christopher’s Inc., an organization that runs programs for teens with emotional and behavioral disabilities, is trying to stop a New Jersey developer from building a large luxury apartment complex next to its North Castle campus.
The charity had agreed to sell 22 acres to JMF Properties LLC of Whippany, with the understanding that the developer would build 35 apartments.
The size of the project is crucial, because the Jennie Clarkson campus caters to autistic children who are sensitive to noise, light and disruption. But JMF, led by Joseph M. Forgione of Maplewood, New Jersey, sidestepped the original low-density concept, St. Christopher’s contends in a lawsuit filed last month in federal court in White Plains. Instead, JMF pursued plans for a 200-unit building.
“Forgione will not accept a reality,” the complaint states. “St. Christopher’s does not want a high-density project and is repulsed by the unethical way in which Forgione and his company have acted.”
Forgione and two attorneys who represent him were not immediately available to respond to the allegations.
St. Christopher’s was founded in 1881 and is based in Dobbs Ferry. The North Castle property is one of three campuses. It has five residential cottages and serves young people diagnosed with autism, some of whom require intensive psychiatric treatment.
The property on Old Orchard Street is surrounded by forest and water on a peninsula that juts into Kensico Reservoir. It is next to the 190-acre Cranberry Preserve and a school for children with special needs operated by the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services.
The 22 acres that JMF wants to buy can support 11 houses under current zoning.
Forgione is in the business of large-scale residential projects. JMF has built more than 2,000 dwellings in 20 years, according to its website, mostly in New Jersey.
The company founder is well connected. He contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, according to news accounts, and is close to the family of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Trump considered him for secretary of Housing and Urban Development and for an ambassadorship to the Vatican. He also served as a commissioner for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.
Forgione has proposed The Vue, a 258,000-square-foot structure with a 400-space underground garage topped by two wings of three to four stories and 200 apartments.
The Vue would generate nearly $1.2 million in taxes a year, according to a marketing report, compared to less than $300,000 if houses were built.
JMF recently scaled back the plans to 125 to 150 units. Even that is much more than St. Christopher’s contemplated.
The charity states it agreed to sell part of its land to JMF in July 2015 for what it understood as a 35-unit apartment project. The contract is contingent on various government approvals and it has not closed yet.
St. Christopher’s claims that JMF knew that the deal did not permit a large-scale project, so it duped the charity into amending the contract under the guise of extending a deadline.
A lawyer forwarded the amended contract directly to St. Christopher’s CEO Robert Maher, bypassing the charity’s attorney. Maher did not notice that language about the size of the project had been deleted and he signed the document.
JMF also needed St. Christopher’s authorization to apply to North Castle for land use approvals. This time, according to the lawsuit, Forgione drafted a letter and got Ralph Herrera, director of facilities, to sign, even though Herrera is not an officer and has no such authority.
JMF commissioned a market study, environmental assessment and traffic study for 200 apartments, according to the lawsuit, but kept the plans quiet for several months. St. Christopher’s discovered the plans when JMF formally filed an application on July 1, 2016 to change the zoning.
St. Christopher’s stated it objected to Forgione, claiming that the amendment and authorization letter had been obtained under false pretenses.
Forgione offered to “sweeten the economic pot,” the lawsuit states, to overcome the charity’s objections.
St. Christopher’s contends that the developer also needed a lawyer with “juice” to lobby for zoning amendments, and the lawyer with the most juice in Westchester County is Mark Weingarten, a partner in DelBello Donnellan Weingarten Wise & Wiederkehr LLP, the White Plains firm that represented St. Christopher’s.
“Forgione managed to convince Weingarten to overlook his firm’s impossible conflict,” according to the lawsuit. When St. Christopher’s objected, Weingarten apologized and resigned from representing the developer.
Weingarten declined to comment on the allegations.
Forgione then prevailed on an acquaintance of Maher’s to set up a meeting with Maher. The developer showed up with a new lawyer, again allegedly bypassing the charity’s lawyer, and offered an even better economic deal.
Maher, according to the lawsuit, made it clear that dollars are not everything and that a high-density project is incompatible with St. Christopher’s facility.
St. Christopher’s wants the court to declare the contract, the amendment and the authorization letter unenforceable. It is asking for at least $1 million in damages.