Government South Orange Towns

Forest Road Residents Protest Orange Lawn Parking Proposal

Now that officials of South Orange and the Orange Lawn Tennis Club seem to have reached a compromise regarding zoning density, a group of neighbors have expressed concern about overflow parking issues.

At the March 23 South Orange Board of Trustees meeting, residents of three households on Forest Road spoke during public comments to protest a plan to put overflow parking on a grassy area of the club behind their homes — despite plans for screening the area with foliage and trees.

In a letter sent to Village President Sheena Collum and the Village Green before the meeting (see below), one resident worried that the headlights that flashed into her home at the end of catered events at the club during the summer would now occur year-round with the introduction of a bubble over four courts at the center of the club in the winter months.

Another neighbor, Larry Yuel, said that it was his recollection that a 1992 agreement with the club guaranteed that there would be no parking facility “on our side, the Forest Road side.”

The Forest Road residents expressed that, although they were glad to hear of the concessions on density, their concerns had not been represented by other Orange Lawn neighbors who had been at the table during negotiations with the developer (BNE), Orange Lawn and the town. Forest Road neighbors feared that the parking concessions would negatively impact their property values.

Collum provided a lengthy history of negotiations with Orange Lawn (scroll down to read her letter to residents below), but, after the second public comment period on Monday, the discussion became contentious when one Forest Road neighbor continued to shout questions at Collum as she attempted to respond to comments.

When Collum told the resident she would be happy to speak with her afterward and could set up a time to talk on Tuesday, the resident responded that that would be difficult because “some of us have to make a living.” Trustee Deborah Davis Ford took issue with this comment, defending the Village President for meeting “ad nauseam” with residents while working “as a director of an organization full time.”

“We are all volunteers here,” said Davis Ford. “And taxpayers.”

Another neighbor questioned the rush to introduce the ordinance approving the redevelopment plan and also said he was not concerned with whether or not Orange Lawn Tennis Club survived.

“From our perspective what difference does it make? We’re going to have a parking lot in our backyard making it harder for us to sell…. They’ve wanted the lower parcel [developed]. They’ve wanted the bubble…. If it gets sold, it’s going to get developed one way or another. It’s the same regardless. Why should we care whether they succeed or not?”

Collum explained that, with the negotiations for the current proposed development and rezoning, the upper portion of the property would be developed as single family detached housing should Orange Lawn fail and sell. However, Collum said that, without the agreement, Orange Lawn could sell, and the entire 16-acre property would be developed at a higher density of 105 units “as of right.”

She also said that the plan was an opportunity to preserve “an historic club.”

Collum and Village Administrator Barry Lewis explained that due to a new “time of application” state law enacted several years ago, the town could not adjust zoning in response to an undesirable development in order to block it.

Collum and Lewis also said that the proposed overflow parking plan could be adjusted as the redevelopment plan moves forward through design and Planning Board approval.

“We are very sensitive to the overflow parking,” said Lewis. “I do want to emphasize these are not paved. These are grass. This is overflow.” Lewis explained that developer would need to present a tree preservation plan and would be required to provide landscaping and buffering and ensure there would be minimum distance from homes and adjacent properties. He also said there was a plan to plant a significant number of new trees.

Collum emphasized that time was of the essence: “The club has payments to make and we don’t want to lose the developer.” Collum said that a hearing and second reading on the ordinance to approve the redevelopment plan  would take place at either the June 13 or June 27 meeting of the Board of Trustees, to be followed by the developer going before the Planning Bpoard for the site plan application.

Collum did ultimately diffuse Forest Road residents’ comments by saying she would meet with them.

“I’m always happy to meet with residents,” said Collum. “We will certainly have that meeting.”

Below is an excerpt of a letter sent by a Forest Road resident to Village President Sheena Collum and the Village Green. The resident asked that her name not be used.

We very much appreciate all of the time and effort the BOT and especially Ms. Collum have spent in their efforts to broker a compromise between the club and its neighbors.  Unfortunately, they were working with a self-appointed group of neighbors who focused on their concerns, not those of all of the neighbors.  Initially, this small group focused on the density of housing, which is critical, but is not the only issue warranting attention. When the idea of a tennis bubble was brought up, additional people joined the committee. There are many of us that are unsure who decided who would be on the committee, but not all of the issues concerning all neighbors were addressed.  For instance, my concern is that the current plan turns the land behind my home into a parking lot for overflow parking. Although a recent email said parking will be addressed in the future, the current plans for parking makes is such that many neighbors are not close to an agreement with the club. The club’s lawn, which is to be developed, is used for the current overflow parking.  I have heard people say “its only for overflow”, as though that should make it acceptable, but the frequency of the need for such parking makes one wonder how the club defines “overflow” and if they have adequate parking. Presently, when the functions end at the club, generally around 11:00 p.m., the headlights from the current overflow parking come right into my bedroom, TV room, kitchen, den, and of course, deck. To say nothing about the disturbance from the crowd’s voices or car doors slamming. The frequency of and need for “overflow” parking will increase with the installation of the bubble since, as the club stated, the bubble will allow the club to offer additional functions and such functions could be throughout the year.  Rather than having the disturbances limited to the summer as is the case now, we will have to deal with it year round. Alternatives to parking behind a number of homes on Forest Road need to be evaluated now, before finalization and approval of the plan. Two possible ideas would be for the overflow to be parked on the grass areas surrounding the club’s current parking lot (between the main building and some of the courts and the pool) and/or hiring of valets to park the cars on Redmond and Forest Roads.

Below is an email sent by Village President Sheena Collum to resident representative Zev Cherl on May 19 to distribute to neighbors of Orange Lawn. Forest Road residents at the May 23 Board of Trustees meeting said they were not aware of the letter.  

Neighbors,

Attached is the revised Orange Lawn Redevelopment Plan.  The purpose of this email is to summarize the history of the Orange Lawn Redevelopment proposal, and specifically to highlight where we started and where we ended up; including identifying the major changes along the way, the specific changes to the plan that was presented in April at a public hearing at which the Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to table the ordinance due to neighborhood feedback, and the end result as reflected in the attached plan.

History leading up to April 2016 Proposed Plan

The currently undeveloped approximate 5 acre portion of the OLTC is, like the remainder of the property, currently zoned to permit recreation use, as well as having the PRC-B (Planned Residential Cluster) overlay zone that would allow single family and multi-family development at a density of 6.6 units per acre.  In a best case scenario, I know people would love to see single family detached housing but from a more lucrative land sale standpoint, if the club were to sell the entire property the neighborhood could potentially see as many as 22 stacked units in 5 structures (similar to garden apartments), resulting in a potential 105 apartments on the full OLTC site, with a 20% on site affordable housing set aside requirement.  As previously discussed with the neighborhood working group and our community discussion at the Baird, the most critical component of this discussion is the underlying zoning which has existed for almost 25 years.  The story of how this unconventional zoning came about dates back to the early 1990s when the village created two PRC districts – one over Orange Lawn and one over the Quarry site now known as “The Manors”.  This effort was a result of contentious litigation over affordable housing and this zoning was an attempt to show the NJ courts that the town was creating reasonable opportunities for the development of affordable housing.  The 6.6 units/acre and the ability to build multi-family housing is what is often to referred to as a “density bonus” – an increase in development opportunity given to developers provided that they build affordable housing units.

Legally, the village has no ability to unilaterally change the zoning as per case law that changed many years ago.  Under the “time of decision” rule, now by statute NJSA 40:55D-10.5, to be vested under the current zoning (or redevelopment plan) an applicant must submit a complete application and vesting relates back to the date of submitting the complete application.  To put this in simple terms, if the village were to introduce an ordinance to rezone the property (whether it be private or public recreation or single family), it would follow the normal government process of an introduction, referral to the planning board, and adoption by the governing body.  This statutorily takes one month (minimally).  The club (or any property owner being faced with a down zoning of a property thus removing financial value) could very quickly submit a complete application for full development under the existing zoning and be vested.  This has always been a significant consideration – understanding who has the greatest leverage and in this case, it has been and is the property owner under the law.  Thus, this discussion has required from the beginning good faith negotiations on all sides because the end result of a 16 acre land sale wouldn’t be of benefit to the club who wants to continue to remain a vibrant and historic icon, the neighborhood, the governing body or the overall South Orange community.

The Village was originally approached in 2014 by the OLTC and its prospective purchaser/developer, BNE with a concept to develop a total of 30 townhouse units, in 5 buildings of 6 units each on 4.6 acres of land, which resulted in density of 6.6 units per acre as permitted under the current zoning for the full site.  In order for the full sale to not occur and keep the club solvent, it would require a subdivision of the property because as currently written, it’s all or nothing.

After neighborhood and stakeholder input and many meetings with the OLTC and BNE, the overall density dropped significantly to the proposal introduced in April which had a total of 22 townhouse units in 11 buildings of only 2 units each on 5 acres, with a resulting density of 4.4 units per acre (equivalent to the density permitted in the surrounding RA-100 single family zoning) and with affordable housing being addressed off site.  That proposal also provided that the zoning on the remaining 11 acres being retained by the OLTC would permit (i) the continuation of the Club use, (ii) single family homes, or (iii) townhouses on the same terms as being permitted on the lower lawn area.  This was an overall downzoning of the property and one the village felt was an improvement from the original concept plan.

Revisions since the April 2016 Proposed Plan

Since the April 2016 Proposed Plan was first introduced, the Village received significant additional feedback and heard concerns from residents in the surrounding neighborhood.  This included a petition we received, comments at the Planning Board meeting, emails and phone calls, as well as testimony at the 2nd reading and public hearing of the ordinance.  In an effort to identify possible solutions to address those concerns along with incorporate some suggestions we heard, I asked the Board of Trustees to “table” the ordinance and redevelopment plan and continue to meet with the neighbors, the OLTC and BNE to evaluate opportunities to further refine the Plan and still meet the objectives of the neighborhood and the OLTC, while maintaining an economically viable project for the developer.  As a side note, at the same meeting, we appointed an economic and financial advisor to the town to assist us in running development pro formas.  This individual quickly joined our team and was able to provide valuable insight on different approaches to get us to where we are today.

The result of these many efforts is reflected in the attached plan.  In short, the plan has reduced the number of townhouses from 22 units in 11 buildings to 20 units in a total of 10 buildings while still adhering to the 4.4 units per acre density.  Preliminary concepts confirm that this reduction will also provide opportunities to modify the site layout to further address neighbor concerns as it relates to design.  In addition, the Village Planner and his team have been actively working with BNE to address site layout and architectural standards and styles to develop a concept that is compatible and harmonious with the surrounding neighborhood and existing development.

In further response to neighborhood concerns, the revised plan eliminates the townhouse zoning on the remaining 11 acres being retained by the OLTC.  Under the revised plan, the remainder of the property will have zoning which will only permit the continuation of the recreation use or single family houses at the RA-100 density of 4.4 units per acre.  This is very significant because the overwhelming feedback we heard from neighbors was planning for the future in the worst case scenario.  The change on the of the balance of the property represents the single largest downzoning to occur in the village – it essentially eliminates apartments, town houses and cuts the overall development opportunity from a density standpoint in half.

As part of that compromise and negotiation, and to further ensure the long term economic viability of the OLTC which has been a priority for us, the revised draft plan has allowed temporary tennis court enclosure structures as a permitted accessory use, which will allow the OLTC to offer year round tennis and thus be competitive with other tennis clubs in the area.  The “bubble” structure(s) are strictly regulated to be seasonal (6 months maximum), limited in height, restricted to internal locations away from the property borders, limited to tennis use only, limited in hours of operation and illumination (7 a.m. to 10 p.m.), regulated to control and minimize noise in compliance with the Village noise regulations, and limited to one or two structures and an area that would cover a total of 4 tennis courts maximum and is farthest away from adjacent neighborhood properties.   In short, significant controls have been put in place to avoid any negative impact on the community from this new accessory use.  When the OLTC had floated this idea to us as a part of the negotiation, we brought it to the attention of the neighborhood working group and shared this information with a group of roughly 30 neighbors who attending a meeting at the Baird Community Center that we hosted a few weeks back.  The controls that have been incorporated into the redevelopment plan are a direct result of the comments and suggestions raised by residents as well as our own independent research conducted by our recreation department.  Our discussion with residents, particularly those most impacted by these proposed changes, helped guide us through this process and what we believe is a good compromise.

Next Steps

The next step in this process is the introduction of an ordinance adopting the Plan which will be at the May 23, 2016 Board of Trustees meeting this Monday night.  The Ordinance will then be reviewed by the Planning Board, which previously found the April plan consistent, for consistency with the Master Plan.  The Ordinance will then be listed for public hearing and adoption at a June Board of Trustees meeting.  Prior to the public hearing and adoption of the Ordinance, the Plan requires that the Developer and Village agree to a concept plan that identifies the locations of the townhouses and improvements as well as architectural standards that control the construction materials and appearance of the townhouses.  Those requirements will be included in the Redevelopment Agreement (RDA) to be approved by Resolution of the Board of Trustees.  After introduction of the Ordinance and completion of the proposed concept plan and architectural controls, we are committed to again solicit neighbor feedback and comments on the concept plan and architectural guidelines at a public meeting with the neighbors.  Many of you have met Mr. Phil Abramson, our new Village Planner, who has reviewed all comments, been at our meetings with residents and the club, and understands the concerns that have been raised.  His design team has been in active discussions with BNE and their architects and design team to evaluate and incorporate where possible, the many thoughts the neighborhood had on improvements to the original concept plan.  That has been ongoing over the past couple weeks.  As soon as we have concept plans, we will coordinate to have another community meeting to share where our professionals have ended up and we will be prepared to answer questions and explain in detail why some changes could be incorporated and why some are not feasible due to challenges outside of our control such as the grading of the property, etc.

Upon approval of the RDA with concept plan and architectural controls and adoption of the ordinance, BNE is expected to file a site plan application (which will include subdivision of the site into the two districts) with the Planning Board.  In connection, they will be required to provide legal notice to all property owners within 200 feet of the site, as well as to publish notice of the hearing date.  The Planning Board will then hold a public hearing on that site plan application, at which time BNE will present its plan and address Board and interested party questions.  Interested parties will also have an opportunity at the hearing to present testimony and comments to the Planning Board.   Upon approval of a site plan, BNE would then be in a position to close on the purchase of the lower portion of the property and proceed with the development.  The Club will continue its operations throughout this period and will have an opportunity to file a site plan application to implement the newly permitted accessory use of temporary tennis court enclosures; subject to the regulations stated in the plan and the same site plan hearing procedures described above.  For those of you familiar with a site plan application, you know this is the time when expert testimony (traffic engineers, storm water management, etc.) is provided.  Both the developer and the village have their own experts who go back and forth and the public is able to ask questions and provide general testimony.


Summary

In summary, the draft plan:

A.     Permanently eliminates the current PRC-B zoning at 6.6 units per acre.

B.     Avoids an impending financial crisis that would lead to the development of the entire site and instead provides a realistic opportunity to ensure the continued long term viability and operation of an iconic South Orange institution.

Lower Lawn

A.     Permits the development of 20 for sale market rate townhouses on 4.6 acres in 2 unit buildings which approximate the size and scale of single family homes.  (Please note that there is no financial incentive in terms of a tax abatement.  The townhouses to be built on a third of the property will be roughly 2800-3000 sq. feet each and are expected to sell between $700,000-$900,000 and generate approximately $600,000 in new tax revenue to be shared amongst the school district, municipality, and county.)

B.     Requires access to the townhouses to be via the OLTC driveway to Ridgewood Road.

C.     Requires a development plan and architectural styles that are harmonious with the surrounding developed single family neighborhood.

D.    Assists the Village in meeting our affordable housing obligations via a substantial contribution to our Affordable Housing Trust Fund totaling $400,000.

Existing Club Site

A.     Restricts future zoning to the existing Club use or single family homes with RA-100 density.

B.     Permits a strictly regulated accessory use of temporary tennis court enclosures to enhance the long term economic sustainability of the OLTC.

Conclusion

The attached Orange Lawn Redevelopment plan is the result of a tremendous collaborative effort by neighborhood stakeholders, OLTC, a developer willing to work with all parties, and a committed Village, though staff, professionals and elected officials.  This plan truly represents the best of transparency, civic engagement and community public/private partnership.  The end result is a plan that will permit reasonable and compatible development, sensitive to the surrounding neighborhood, while avoiding much more significant and intrusive development and preserving an historic Village icon.

On behalf of my colleagues on the Board of Trustees, I want to express my sincere appreciation to the neighbors, the OLTC and BNE for your collective willingness to meet, to discuss calmly, to be reasonable in expectations, and to reach an appropriate compromise that addresses our ultimate goals and objectives.  I’ve personally learned a lot through this process and I know moving forward, our village can do even better engaging our residents and stakeholders and improving upon plans.  I hope everyone made it through this lengthy email and please stay tuned for the next neighborhood meeting date and time to discuss the concept plans before being introduced to the governing body for consideration.  I will again work through Zev Scherl as a point person to communicate with the larger neighborhood and keep you posted.

Thanks,

Sheena

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