South Orange Township Defends Town-Wide Rehabilitation Designation

by Mary Mann
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A war of words has erupted recently between the Township of South Orange and one local attorney and property owner.

The Township of South Orange Village recently posted information on its website explaining the recent designation of the entire Township as an “area in need of rehabilitation,” asserting that the post was being made in response to calls and emails from constituents who were confused by an email circulated by a local business owner that contains “numerous inaccuracies” about what the rehabilitation designation means.

On March 9, the South Orange Board of Trustees — upon the recommendation of the Planning Board on March 2 as well as a series of studies by the town planner — adopted Resolution #2015-45, designating the entire municipality as an Area in Need of Rehabilitation as authorized by the New Jersey Local Housing and Redevelopment Law.

According to a communication titled, “South Orange Rehabilitation Designation Information,” which was authored by Township Administrator Barry Lewis, designating the Township as an area in need of rehabilitation allows the town to exercise “greater control” over projects. Lewis wrote, “Rehabilitation does not involve blight, possible condemnation or long term tax abatement, and is primarily focused on repairs, renovations and upgrades to existing buildings.”

The email that prompted calls and emails to the Township was sent by South Orange attorney and property owner Elaine Harris. Harris’s original email reads in part:

“With this Resolution, the Trustees can circumvent local zoning and award Redevelopment contracts to persons of their choosing.  They can also award tax abatements.   Some other examples of what this would allow them to do:   Orange Lawn and Marylawn properties can become apartment houses; large homes in Montrose can be divided into condominiums, or townhouses; Seton Hall can encroach into Tuxedo Park by acquiring adjacent properties; student housing can be squeezed into Self Place or on small parcels on Irvington Avenue.  This potential goes on and on.   Without the protections of our Planning Board and Board of Adjustment,  a lot of aberrant, unattractive structures could emerge.”

However, Lewis wrote that the designation does not change zoning or circumvent public processes through which development projects are approved. The designation does allow for short-term tax abatements in the form of five-year PILOTs (or payments in lieu of taxes); however, those PILOTs still need to be approved through a public process.

(Lewis’ assertions check out with various information available about the New Jersey Local Redevelopment and Housing Law found online, including at njplanning.orgNew Jersey Futures, and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, as well as the state statute itself.)

Reached for further comment, Harris questioned the transparency of the process of creating a rehabilitation designation. Harris also questioned how three major committees/organizations (Seton Village Committee, South Orange Village Center Alliance — or SOVCA, and the South Orange Village Development Committee) got “involved in this process to the exclusion of the rest of us?”

Harris also challenges that the designation was the result of “over nine months of deliberation, study and public discussion” and claims that according to the minutes of the March 2 Planning Board meeting that the motion was passed unanimously with no record of any deliberation. “The public never had a chance to review the Planner’s report,” wrote Harris. “One week later, the Board of Trustees unanimously voted to accept this recommendation, again, with no deliberation or public input. The entire process was rubber stamped under the radar.” (See Harris’ full reply below.)

However, Lewis said that the potential designation for rehabilitation was discussed at nine Board of Trustees meetings and six Planning Board meetings spanning 2014 and 2015, as well as numerous committee meetings and public forums. Lewis provided a list of the meetings and links to minutes (see attachment below). Video coverage of Board of Trustees meetings can be found here, and video coverage of Planning Board meetings here. Lewis also noted that Harris commented on the potential rehabilitation designation at the August 4, 2014 Planning Board meeting.

Lewis said that the Planner’s Rehabilitation Report has been available to the public on the Village Website since October 10, 2014 at this link.

Harris asserted that the Township’s website response was “totally silent” with reference to redevelopment. “By now we are all familiar with the concept of ‘Redevelopment’ and that it means no public bidding, more tax abatements, and local zoning can be adjusted to suit the developer’s needs regarding setbacks and height, for example, like the project on Valley and Third,” wrote Harris. “The only significant difference between Rehabilitation and Redevelopment is that the former eliminates the threat of eminent domain and favors a 5 year tax abatement in lieu of a 30 year tax abatement.  Aside from those two issues, Rehabilitation compared to Redevelopment, is simply a slightly lesser form of a blight designation.”

Lewis responded, “Whether under redevelopment or rehabilitation, the next step is a ‘redevelopment plan,’ which is adopted by ordinance with all of the same procedural requirements and protections as a zoning ordinance. There are no shortcuts and no avoidance of Planning Board Review, public notice, public hearings, etc. The Board has never suggested or considered these tools for residential neighborhoods, and has been clear that this is directed at the Irvington Avenue and Valley Street commercial corridors, with the option to use these tools for the two large sensitive sites, Orangelawn and Marylawn if the use of the additional controls will better help to protect the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Lewis also noted that “no public bidding” is only applicable to publicly owned property, “of which none are being considered for any rehabilitation or redevelopment.”

Nonetheless, Harris questioned why South Orange chose to pursue a township rehabilitation when so few New Jersey municipalities have done so: “Global Rehabilitation or Redevelopment is not appropriate for this Village,” wrote Harris. “It is a major blemish, it invites abuse, and must be rescinded.”

Read the full Township website post online or below:

Download (PDF, 79KB)

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