Woodbridge Township purchased the land development rights to the for $6.2 million at last night's council meeting.
The council chamber was filled to overflowing as Mayor John McCormac that the purchase, from Colonia Country Club owner Matthew Lonuzzi, would cost Woodbridge taxpayers nothing because of a separate agreement between the township and the Middlesex County Board of Freeholders. Under the agreement, the county would purchase the land rights to the country club from the township for $6.5 million, paid over a four-year period.
"The $300,000 difference covers the costs of appraisals, engineering studies, and legal fees," the mayor said. "There is no, and I repeat no, cost to our taxpayers for this transaction despite many assertions to the contrary."
Lonuzzi was a Colonia Country Club member who purchased the 104-acre tract last year when dwindling membership caused the club financial difficulties. Mayor McCormac had threatened eminent domain lawsuits against Lonuzzi and the country club to protect the land from being developed. Lonuzzi fought back in court.
"As one of the largest contributors to the County Open Space Trust, we are obligated to get as much as possible from our taxpayers investment into the fund," the mayor said. "We recognize that we have precious little open space to begin with, unlike towns in the southern part of the County which have thousands or acres of farmland. Therefore, we need to be creative and this transaction with the Colonia Country Club is exactly that."
McCormac also cited another benefit of the agreement, explaining that Lonuzzi will provide public access to the country club on all day on Tuesdays and after 1 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends.
"Golfers, who in the past could have never played on this course, will now be able to tee-up on one of the oldest and most challenging golf courses in the State of New Jersey – right here in Woodbridge," the mayor said. "Golfers will also have access to the clubhouse and dining facilities after play."
News of the acquisition seemed to please most people in the crowded meeting room but there were some questions and criticisms and election year politics were not entirely absent from the proceedings.
Christopher Struben, McCormac's Republican opponent in November's election, said he generally supported keeping the country club land as open space but had issues with how the development rights are being paid for.
"Bonding companies charge two or three percent of the cost of the bond as their fee," Struben said, a figure that would total as much as $195,000 by his reckoning. "There is no way that $300,000 difference is going to pay the cost of obtaining the bond, plus the interest on the bond over a period of years, plus the legal fees involved in this," he said.
Woodbridge Republican Chairman John Vtaric asked the mayor what the cost of borrowing the $6.5 million will be.
"That has not been determined yet," the mayor said.
"We are borrowing that money over a period of years. What happens when the freeholders dole it back to us over the same period of time? What will happen to that money? We're still going to be in debt for a $6.5 million bond," Vtaric said after the meeting.
Tom Maras, a Woodbridge resident and frequent critic of the administration, said he was not impressed by the benefit to golfers. "That's the last thing anyone cares about, when we don't know the details of how much this is going to cost," he said. "If the county is giving the township the money, it is still tax money."
"How much is a $6.5 million loan going to cost taxpayers? How many years is this loan? What assurance do we have that the mayor will use the county payment to pay down this particular debt?" Maras said.