Government South Orange

OPINION: Luxury Dorm Project on Valley Street Is Ad Hoc Redevelopment at Its Worst

Michael Parlapiano is a 23-year resident of South Orange. He is also a member of the South Orange Zoning Board of Adjustment; however, his opinions here are his own and do not represent the ZBA. Parlapiano has previously posted Opinion pieces on Village Green related to student housing here and here and here

The luxury dorm proposed for the All Star Motors site on Valley Street violates many zoning laws including building height, density, setbacks, and parking. It also violates our zoning laws on permitted uses: a dorm is not a permitted use anywhere in town other than on the SHU campus. But our Village President and some members of the BOT want this project to be built anyway and are moving quickly now to change the zoning laws for this single piece of property to allow it to move forward. Think about that for a minute – they are changing the law not for the entire town or even for the entire street but just for this one site, while everyone else (including the properties right next door to All Star Motors) have to abide by the existing laws.

There is a process for property owners to request a zoning variance for their property — they make a case to the Zoning or Planning Board, present expert witnesses who are questioned by the board, by it’s professionals and by residents, and they are held to a very high legal standard. Regular property owners have to meet this legal standard if they want to add a deck that goes 2% over on lot coverage or want to operate a home based business. It is a high hurdle — and it should be a high hurdle. Zoning creates a level playing field for all property owners and making an exception for one can create value for that property but destroy value for the rest. And that isn’t fair and it isn’t good planning.

The law does recognize that over time what a community wants for a zone can change, so zoning laws can be changed in a fair manner — not on a property by property basis but for the whole zone. We are in the process of updating our zoning laws right now, starting with the creation of a new Master Plan. At the end of this process we may or may not decide to change the zoning for all of Valley Street to permit 4- and 5-story high-density dorms (Seton Hall does need about 15 more dorms the size of the one proposed to fit all of their students who need housing). Whatever we decide, the new zoning will apply to the entire street and create a level playing field for all property owners and developers.

But the administration doesn’t want to wait for this and have decided to bypass the normal planning process and change the zoning only for the All Star Motors site based on what one developer says they need in order to profitably build. The process they are following is legal — they gave themselves the right to do this to any property in town when they declared all of South Orange to be an Area In Need of Rehabilitation — but it is unfair and it is bad planning.

This is my fundamental objection to the project. Redeveloping Valley Street by changing the law on an ad hoc lot-by-lot basis to match what each developer says they need is unfair and will lead to chaos. Valley Street is a mess today on every level — the physical buildings are completely inconsistent, nearly every building has a different use and has its own private parking lot, the traffic is overwhelming, the sidewalks are unpassable in some places and the street is dangerous for pedestrians and bike riders. Even the power infrastructure is a mess. We need to decide what we want the future Valley Street to be and we need to create a plan for how we are going to get there. Why not plan first?

At the South Orange Board of Trustees meeting on December 10, the Village President said that planning takes too long and we cannot wait. Think about that statement from our Village President who works in the planning industry: planning takes too long. Are we so desperate that we don’t have time to plan? If she and the BOT actually value planning they could have begun the master plan the day they were sworn in rather than waiting over two years.

There was a sadly telling moment at the end of the BOT meeting about the dorm proposal — the Village President pressed each member to say how they would vote on the proposal as it now stands if they had to vote today. Some members said they still had significant questions that needed to be answered before making up their minds, but she pressed them to say yes or no on the spot. After everyone present had voted and it was 3-1 in favor with two members absent she then voted on behalf of a member who was not there, saying, “I know he’s in favor of the proposal” — as if nothing that was presented that evening or the questions and concerns from residents might have changed his mind or given him pause.

Why not complete a comprehensive plan for Valley Street before deciding to dramatically rezone this critically important and valuable site? Maybe some people in the administration have already made up their minds and the public process, including the Master Plan process, is just window dressing.

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