St. Thomas Church in Brigantine.

December 8, 2007  Press of Atlantic City

BRIGANTINE – A state appeals court has again ruled against three local residents who challenged the city’s plans to buy a now-closed Catholic school property for $2.6 million.

The three-judge appellate panel upheld a July 2006 decision by Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong, who dismissed a suit charging that the city’s purchase of the 4.5-acre St. Philip the Apostle campus was tainted by conflicts of interest because three City Council members are also members of the Catholic parish that now owns the property.

Mayor Philip Guenther and Councilmen John Murray and Sam Storino are members of St. Thomas Church in Brigantine, and Murray is on the church’s finance committee. Three other Council members are also Catholics, according to the decision, but Armstrong ruled – and the appeals court agreed – that the government officials had no legal conflicts between those two roles because they don’t stand to benefit personally from the sale.

City officials cheered the decision after they got it Thursday and Guenther said in a statement that he hopes it will put an “end to a baseless court fight” that has already cost the city more than $100,000 in legal fees, according to the mayor. He called the suit’s allegations “unfair, erroneous and unsupported … and scurrilous,” and said they were “designed to diminish public trust in our governing body.”

But in a prepared statement of her own, plaintiff Anne Phillips did not back off at all Friday from the charges first raised shortly after the city announced its hopes to buy the school property in July 2005. Phillips, a former councilwoman and frequent critic of the city government, said she and her fellow plaintiffs were “disheartened by the appellate court’s refusal to see the conflict of interest in this case.”

Phillips also reiterated charges that Council didn’t “justify the $2.6 million price,” but Tim Maguire, the city solicitor who argued the case at the appeals court, said Friday that an appraisal actually put the value of the property “in excess of $6 million.”

The former school, near 42nd Street and Brigantine Avenue, was closed by the Camden Diocese in June 2003 but reopened by parents as Apostle Academy that fall. That school lasted just one year before closing again.

Guenther said the city now hopes to turn the 4.5 acres into “a first-class recreational and educational facility for our residents.”

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