True Devotion

Real estate lawyer Lloyd Tubman helps religious groups—and other clients—break down barriers

Published in 2012 New Jersey Super Lawyers — April 2012

Photo by: Luigi Ciuffetelli

When Lloyd Tubman was asked to file a planning board application on behalf of a local religious group in late 2010, the seasoned real estate lawyer assumed the process would be routine. With more than 25 years of land use law under her belt, there was little reason for Tubman to think this application would present any unseen challenges … with one exception.

Many of the neighbors were less than thrilled about welcoming the Islamic religious group.

“A year later, this has become very challenging,” says Tubman, seated in a conference room at the Flemington offices of Archer & Greiner, where she has concentrated on real estate, development approvals, and environmental compliance and permitting since 1984. “But that’s part of the enjoyment.”

Tubman, through word-of-mouth recommendations, has ended up with something of a sub-niche representing religious groups in real estate matters.

“The religious work has grown over time,” she says. “I’ve worked for mainstream Protestant, Evangelical and Muslim houses of worship; as well as a Catholic school—for its new facility for handicapped schoolchildren.”

Her measured, cordial demeanor reveals something of her military pedigree and independent spirit as she recounts the origins of the mosque case.

It began when members of the Al Falah Center—a nonprofit group formed by local Muslim residents of various ethnicities, backgrounds and professions—decided to convert a closed Bridgewater banquet hall into a mosque.

Tubman says Al Falah had been looking for a permanent home for more than a decade, and since the banquet hall’s property was already zoned for “permitted conditional use” for houses of worship, it seemed the ideal choice. She designed an application with no variances that outlined the group’s plans to convert the space into a mosque, daycare facility, religious school and community center. Then she filed it with the township and gave notice for first hearing. Standard operating procedure.

A few days later, the situation became anything but standard. When Tubman drove to the municipal building to talk things over with township officials in advance of the meeting, she saw Bridgewater residents picking up copies of the application. By the time the first hearing took place in January, more than 400 people showed up in staunch opposition. The crowd was so overwhelming that the township had to postpone the meeting to avoid a fire-code violation and reshedule it at the local vocational high school.

When the hearing finally got underway a month later, more than 650 residents were in attendance, including members of the Somerset County Tea Party, who had posted information about the hearing on Facebook.

Tubman wasn’t intimidated. She had plenty of experience fighting uphill planning-board battles. But by the time the second hearing rolled around, the township had rewritten the ordinance to prohibit houses of worship in residential zones unless they fronted on state highways, county roads and certain segments of local streets—which the banquet hall’s 7 ½ acres did not. The ruling did not affect the town’s existing religious facilities, many of which are also in residential areas.

In April, the Islamic group decided to sue the township. The township’s motion to dismiss was denied, and the case is pending in federal court.

“Until they changed the ordinance, I knew I could win,” says Tubman, who, along with attorneys from Arnold & Porter, is providing pro bono representation to Al Falah. “[But] I think this process will be very rewarding in the end. It’s an opportunity to put together the classic, perfect case.”

 

Tubman thrives under pressure.
It was her desire for intellectual challenge that led her to law in the first place.

It was the early 1970s and Tubman was living in Long Island, N.Y., happily tending to her duties as a full-time homemaker and mother of two while her husband, Jim, worked for AT&T. On the morning her youngest daughter left the house for her first day of first grade, however, Tubman had an epiphany.

“I started getting phone calls,” she recalls. “The first was a neighbor saying, ‘Now that you have nothing to do, will you visit with my mother?’ Another one said, ‘Will you watch my daughter?’ And another asked, ‘Will you stay home with my son who has a broken leg?’ Suddenly I thought, ‘I have a lot of time on my hands.’”

And so, at age 32, Tubman went back to school and obtained her bachelor’s degree, with the goal of eventually becoming a lawyer. She had always been an exceptional student and voracious learner.

More than 30 years later, Tubman delights in the memory of the pursuit. Making quick, life-changing decisions was nothing new for her.

Growing up with eight siblings and a father in the Army, Tubman never lived in one place for longer than three years at a stretch.

“I was always being thrown into a new community, and moving around like that makes you very independent,” says Tubman. “And being the oldest of nine, I grew up very fast.”

Her family was constantly on the move, traveling to several states, then—just after she graduated from high school—to Germany. Tubman finished one semester of undergraduate education at the University of Maryland’s Munich campus before meeting her husband, getting married and moving back to the States.

Fast is a comfortable speed for Tubman. After she started at SUNY Stony Brook, her husband got a job transfer and the family moved to Minnesota. Tubman took two years to complete what should have been a 3 ½-year process at the University of Minnesota, logging 25 credits each quarter while cooking the week’s meals on Saturday mornings. Three years later, Tubman earned her J.D. from the same university.

“I loved it,” she recalls. “And I didn’t have the distraction of having to fall in love.”

Two years out of law school, Tubman once again was forced to make a swift decision. She was sitting on a planning board and clerking in a superior court in Minnesota when her husband was notified that his AT&T position would be moved to Omaha. Neither Tubman nor her husband wanted to relocate to Nebraska, and on Friday of that week, he got a call from a colleague in King of Prussia, Penn. If Jim could be there by Monday, he had a job waiting for him. “Go,” Tubman told her husband. “I’ll figure out the details.”

She had just one contact in that region: a lawyer at Morristown-based Pitney Hardin. Yes, he said, the firm was looking for someone to come on board and handle land use work. Tubman flew out to New Jersey over the weekend, interviewed for the position, got it, and returned to Minnesota. A couple of weekends later, she flew back, met with three realtors and bought a house by Monday morning.

“I’m an Army brat,” Tubman says with a wry smile. “I know how to move. My mother moved on four days’ notice with six children when my father got transferred to Hawaii. She pulled us out of school, called the movers, and had us on a plane in three days.”

 

Tubman’s ability to embrace the unexpected has worked well as she stands before various boards, works on new applications, and keeps up with the latest local ordinances and environmental regulations.

In addition to her regular workload, Tubman worked pro bono as a negotiator and author of the New Jersey Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act in 1985. She is also a past board chair of the state bar association’s land use law section and a member of the New Jersey Tidelands Resource Council. She was formerly counsel to the New Jersey Chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP), and has received awards from NAIOP and the New Jersey Chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice for her work on the wetlands act.

“If I were doing anything else, I would have retired by now,” says Tubman, 65. “Real estate law keeps you on your feet, always reading people, always figuring out different personalities. It stays complicated, which means it stays interesting.”

George Dilts, a real estate lawyer with Dilts & Koester in Flemington, has seen Tubman in action many times. He has appeared before many of the same planning and zoning boards.

“It’s not like standing in front of a judge who’s holding all the cards,” he says. “You have seven or nine people who all have different points of view. To do this job you need to be a people person. You need to be able to read between the lines. And whether the board is favorable or difficult, Lloyd is always very calm and collected. Some attorneys stand in front of boards and take decisions very personally, but she’s always very professional. She doesn’t ever lose her temper when things don’t go her way.”

Tubman takes her job very seriously, according to former colleague Arthur Greenbaum, a real estate lawyer with Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis.

“Her bearing was always professional,” recalls Greenbaum. “And Lloyd was real. She never fooled around. She wasn’t a joker. She was very serious about the law, and I know that’s why she was so respected by those who’ve worked with her.”

Tubman once represented a pastor who became frustrated by the delay and cost of obtaining approvals for a modest addition and decided to go it alone, without Tubman, his planner or his architect. Concerned that he wouldn’t be able to handle the process by himself, Tubman—without charge—prepared and sent the necessary legal notices, and appeared before the board of adjustment with him. The addition was approved.

Another time, Tubman was representing a Hindu group that wanted to build a temple. Faced with opposition, the group decided it should go elsewhere rather than appeal a rejection. “That was very disappointing,” says Tubman.

She is currently representing a philosophical group headquartered in India called Science of the Soul. When the local group first moved from other townships to Piscataway a few years ago, it wanted to conduct its meetings in the middle unit of a 113,000-square-foot warehouse building in an industrial zone. After confirming with the township’s zoning officer that the spiritual center would be permitted in the warehouse, the group purchased the property. When the time came to file the planning board application, however, Tubman found out that Piscataway had changed its ordinance to prohibit houses of worship in buildings that included other uses or had lots greater than 5 acres in size.

“Unfortunately for them,” says Tubman, “they forgot to tell the township’s board of adjustment about the ordinance change, and the board of adjustment had already approved us. So the township sued its board of adjustment and my client. We eventually settled and moved in. I just got the township’s permission for an expansion.”

Asked if she ever feels like a social advocate, Tubman pauses a moment.

“I don’t think I’d say ‘advocate.’ Maybe ‘proactive’ is the right word,” she says. “I will not take objector work. I won’t take a case where a client says, ‘I want you to fight this application because I don’t want this particular use in my neighborhood. Instead, I’m always trying to persuade board members that something is a suitable use. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun.”

Photo by: Luigi Ciuffetelli

Photo by: Luigi Ciuffetelli

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