During Monday night’s South Orange Board of Trustees meeting, Trustee Sheena Collum indicated that the board could revisit a decision to designate the entire town as an area in need of rehabilitation.
“We can also just have the conversation again in planning and zoning,” said Collum, referring to the board’s planning and zoning committee. Collum added, “Maybe we just revisit with the planner and see whatever suggestions she might have.”
Collum’s remarks were in response to public comments made by Amy Dahn. Dahn is a past president of Montrose Park Historic District Association and a commissioner on the Historic Preservation Commission; however, Dahn stressed that she was speaking as a private citizen and not as a representative of those bodies.
The town has also received numerous calls and emails regarding the rehabilitation designation, much of which was due to an email that was circulated that included numerous “inaccuracies” about rehabilitation, according to officials. Township Administrator Barry Lewis wrote a response to that email and provided additional information about the designation in a post on the township website.
At the April 27 Board of Trustees meeting, Dahn said that she felt that the town-wide designation of South Orange as an area in need of rehabilitation was “a broad brush stroke that paints a poor picture of South Orange and is a dangerous precedent.” She questioned why South Orange should be the “guinea pig” for a town-wide rehabilitation zone designation in New Jersey and noted that, of the few towns that had used the designation, some towns were “decimated” by Superstorm Sandy.
Dahn said that although South Orange has “older housing stock, very few properties are derelict” and that she had seen “growth and enhancement and for the most part preservation over the past 20 years.” Dahn said she would prefer to see a more measured approach and see designation of areas that are “actually in need,” such as the Seton Village/Irvington Avenue corridor, Valley Street and the sewer system.
Dahn also said that potential buyers who searched the words “what is rehabilitation” would immediately come across language stating that the criteria is that a “significant portion of the structures therein are deteriorated or in substandard conditions.”
“That’s the first thing they are going to read and that’s going to turn them around,” said Dahn.
Township Administrator Barry Lewis responded to Dahn, explaining that the designation was undertaken only after new, additional criteria had been added to the governing New Jersey statute, which “has opened the door to more town-wide designations.” Lewis said that the statute “doesn’t do anything other than state that more than half of housing and sewer are more than 50 years old and in need of repair.”
Lewis further explained that town leaders “saw this as an opportunity to take steps at minimal expense knowing full well that anything extensive would be with adoption of a redevelopment plan.” He noted that rehabilitation does not permit eminent domain and comes with limited tax abatements.
Lewis said that any next step would involve designating a redevelopment zone which “comes with all the protections” of reporting to the Zoning and Planning boards, public hearings, the Board of Trustees — “the same process as a zoning ordinance.”
“Does it create a stigma from the real estate perspective? I couldn’t speculate, but if anyone looked into it they would see the basis for it,” said Lewis. “Ultimately, I think it will give the desired impact … of steering upgrades in tired commercial corridors and [provide] additional controls on more sensitive sites.”
Lewis stressed that “the notion that this gives new powers or bypasses existing procedures” is false and that “any development still needs all the same procedural protections.”
Trustee Sheena Collum then added that the choice to move forward with the designation came after extensive surveying and meetings with residents such as those in the Irvington Avenue corridor who were overwhelmed with the continued “disrepair of buildings.”
“We’ve heard this time and time again. We brought this to our village planner to see what tools were available.” Collum reiterated that the rehabilitation designation was merely a “first step.”
But after Dahn returned to finish her comments during a second public comment period, Collum talked about revisiting the designation.
Collum said, “Whatever gets us to the place where we’re able to offer the financial incentives that we’re trying to accomplish, you know I’m pretty flexible with that — however we can achieve that — but ultimately I would prefer that we don’t do several studies all over town if we can avoid that. So maybe we just revisit with the planner to see what suggestions she might have based on some of the concerns.”
Dahn also urged the Village President and Trustees to lobby for passage of the NJ Historic Property Reinvestment Act, saying it would provide a state tax credit for the preservation and rehabilitation of historic neighborhoods, structures and downtowns.
She also urged Trustees to apply to be a Certified Local Government, as such a designation would make preservation-related grants available.
Finally, Dahn urged the VP and Trustees to pass the Historic Preservation Plan Element of the Village Master Plan.
Before the meeting’s end, Trustee Howard Levison noted that Dahn was correct in that parts of the Master Plan were not complete. Collum noted, “The frustrating part is that … we have to complete the comprehensive Master Plan…. Our zoning ordinances aren’t consistent with what has come out of the Smart Growth Plan.” Collum noted that, indeed, if the ordinances had been made consistent with the plan then the Orange Lawn Tennis Club would be zoned differently — as an RA-100 Residential/Single Family zone rather than a PRC-B or Planned Residential Cluster B zone.
“We have a lot of outstanding items over the years that haven’t been formally adopted and incorporated into the land use chapter of our code,” she said, “but this is going to be the year. Master Plan or bust.”