The South Orange Board of Trustees approved an ordinance on second reading on Monday night expanding the boundaries of its Special Improvement District southward on Valley Street.
Bob Zuckerman, Executive Director of the South Orange Village Center Alliance, which manages the SID, spoke briefly to the Trustees noting that he had given a lengthy presentation with SOVCA Chair Matt Glass at a budget hearing in January.
Zuckerman stressed that SOVCA had done its due diligences in mailing notification of the expansion via both regular and certified mail to all the property owners and business owners in the expansion area. Zuckerman also followed up with phone calls and emails. “I’m 100% confident that we reached all the stakeholders,” said Zuckerman.
Zuckerman quickly summarized the work of SOVCA including street and parking lot cleaning, marketing (including a website, the Village Vibe email newsletter sent weekly to 1,900 readers with an open rate of 30%), events, streetscape improvements (the addition of garbage and recycling cans last year and banners this year), business recruitment and retention, and support and advocacy.
To bolster his point, Zuckerman read a letter from Deborah Engel, proprietor of Work and Play. Engel, who is not currently in the district, wrote “I am in full support of the expansion…. I have seen firsthand the advantages of their support and the disadvantage of being outside.” Engel went on to describe how Zuckerman and staff (Melissa Hodge) had helped testify to the Planning Board in support of her business and to organize a ribbon cutting. However, she noted that Work and Play was not automatically included in all of SOVCA’s promotions and events: “How welcoming it would be to have SOVCA looking out for us. To automatically be included as opposed to squeeze our way in.” Engel noted, “We have much to give back as well.”
However, Nick Cioppettini, the President of South Orange Storage at 219 Valley Street, spoke at length about his opposition to the expansion. Village President Sheena Collum allowed Cioppettini to go well over the three-minute public speaking limit to beyond 12 minutes because he said he was speaking on behalf of several other business and property owners who could not make it to the meeting.
Cioppettini first described his long history in the town (a graduate of Columbia High School who purchased the business from his parents). “I know enough not to stand in the way of progress but have to stand up for my business and what is happening,” said Cioppettini, who then enumerated the many State fees that he must pay. “Over the past ten years, I’ve been assessed with over $3,000 in fees for the State of New Jersey…. You add up all those fees, not even taking into consideration that I’m providing healthcare for my employees, utilities have gone up, insurance has gone up….” Cioppettini said that his property taxes have risen $10,000 in eight years.
“Yes, the special assessment is small but when you add all those fees together, it’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Cioppettini, who also argued that, since he was not a retail or restaurant business, he would not see benefits from the district expansion.
The Trustees did not agree that Cioppettini would not see benefits.
“I do believe the district is providing a great deal of benefit to the community as well as the businesses. Sometimes things may not always seem fair on first blush,” Trustee Steve Schnall pointed out, “We all pay taxes for the school district even if we don’t have children for example.”
Mark Rosner explained that the “plan was to expand down Valley Street in stages and we noted that certain properties may not see the same benefit but we couldn’t pick and choose. We needed to look at the district as a whole.” Rosner said that every block would see “a benefit whether it’s cleaning or an improvement.” Rosner also noted that the Township heavily subsidizes the improvement district.
Deborah Davis Ford was very adamant in her comments.
“Let’s be frank,” she told Cioppettini as she also noted that members of the community pay into the school district often without direct benefit. “When you are part of a community there are direct and indirect benefits. You still have the benefit of living in a village where people are comfortable coming in.” Davis Ford did offer a note of compassion, saying, “I can understand how challenging [it is]…. My husband is an entrepreneur… but when you are part of a community there are sometimes indirect benefits. This is for the overall quality, improvement and aesthetics of our community.”
Village President Sheena Collum told Cioppettin, “I heard you loud and clear. Everything you said came around when the SID was approved.” However, she refuted the idea that he would not see benefits, saying that he could build a relationship SOVCA staff and members and see “about having other businesses utilize your storage facility…. It may not be a window shopping experience for me but if I had seen your logo in the Village Vibe while moving I might have clicked on you.”
The ordinance passed by a vote of 5-0 (Trustee Jeff DuBowy was absent).
(Read Village Green’s story explaining the SID expansion and process here.)