South Orange Trustees Postpone Vote on Orange Lawn Redevelopment Plan

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The South Orange Village Board of Trustees decided to postpone a vote on an ordinance on the Orange Lawn Redevelopment Plan tonight due to significant pushback from neighbors of the club.

Village President Sheena Collum announced the decision to table the vote before the public hearing on the ordinance. Later in the meeting Collum hinted that a further compromise on the development of the site may be in the works.

“We will be meeting with Orange Lawn Tennis Club immediately because we have some ideas that we are not sharing at this time,” said Collum, who added that the governing body expects to receive a report “on some of the legal things that we are looking into” by next Monday at which time the Board of Trustees will hold a special executive session.

“We will be moving quickly,” said Collum, who added that the Village’s redevelopment counsel and planner would be working and meeting with Orange Lawn leadership and that the Village would be relaying updates to a designated “point person” for the neighbors, Zev Scherl.

The ordinance has been tabled “until it is lifted,” said Collum. The Village President noted that Orange Lawn has shared it financial information with the town and village leaders were aware of the need to act quickly.

Early in the meeting Collum reiterated the ways in which the Township of South Orange Village is constrained in dealing with the project, noting that, because of existing zoning, the club “as of right” could sell the property for dense development (6.6 units per acre). (See Collum’s explanation from the March 28 Board of Trustees meeting here.) She also noted that the town, by state law, cannot change zoning in order to block a project.

Last week, the South Orange Planning Board ruled that the plan conformed to the South Orange Master Plan, despite arguments to the contrary from neighbors and a planner they hired to review the plan. (Read the story here.) That planner, Michael Pessolano, again commented on Monday night saying that the plan was “highly disruptive to an already existing stable neighborhood.”

“I did read your report and it was certainly appreciated,” said Collum to Pessolano, but then added, “One thing absent from your report is the recognition of what the current zoning is.”

Pessolano replied, “You will see that in my revised report.”

Collum rejoined, “I appreciate hearing that. But … what would you suggest could be done that doesn’t get us sued?”

Pessolano replied, “Anything other than lying down and doing nothing. … You’ve made a bold movement to engage in the redevelopment approach. Go back to the negotiating table and bring that commentary into the mix.”

The April 11 Board of Trustees certainly brought a lot more commentary into the mix.

Both neighbors opposed to the proposed project and members of Orange Lawn Tennis Club who support the project took to the microphone during the hearing, revealing contentious feelings and deep divisions about how the property should be developed and the process to create the plan.

Many neighbors expressed frustration and even anger over the level of communication from the town and the club during the process. “There was an exchange of information at the beginning,” said one neighbor. “Then the process went silent.” Neighbor Zev Scherl concurred: “Nobody has spoken to us in eight months until two weeks ago.”

Many neighbors talked about how the proposed 22 town home development on the lower five acres of the site would destroy the character of the neighborhood and negatively impact property values. One neighbor who relocated from Australia to South Orange three and a half years ago stressed that the importance of South Orange’s character should not be undervalued: “The character of the area brought me 10,000 miles to be here tonight with my family.”

Other neighbors expressed distrust and anger with the tennis club leadership. One neighbor called the club “arrogant.”

“You have all of these people who are so upset about this. You’re kind of neighbors but really not. You’re blaming others. I have not heard you take real responsibility for your decisions.”

In fact, some neighbors said that Orange Lawn had come before the town a number of times over the years seeking approvals for projects that were designed to alleviate financial difficulties. They said that they had little confidence that Orange Lawn would not be in another financial crisis in a few years time.

Other neighbors struck a more conciliatory tone, although they also asked for a lower density development. “I really want it to survive,” said one neighbor about the historic tennis club. “But I am very concerned about this high density and am pleased to hear of a potential compromise. I understand the time period and the debt is mounting.”

South Orange resident and Orange Lawn member Michael Feinberg drew some jeers from the audience when he suggested that tennis club neighbors “should expect noise and traffic and club members would be in your backyard.” Feinberg reiterated the point made by another club member that “the situation seems pretty cut and dry that if nothing is done, the club will go under…. What I haven’t heard is any type of plan from the neighbors around the club on what they would propose to stop this from happening.”

Neighbors, as a whole, said they wanted to see the club preserved. “We are interested in finding a compromise. Help us do that,” said Scherl.

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