WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Zoning Board approved 19 amendments to the site plan of Seton Hall Preparatory School’s Kelly Athletic Complex expansion during its July 21 meeting, although some of the work had already been completed without its consent.
The board voted 6-1 to pass all of the amendments except for two — the relocation of the batting cages and the shot put area, two of the projects that had already been done — with Vice Chairman Bruce Buechler being the sole vote against them. It then voted 4-3 to pass the other two changes, with Buechler, William Steinhart and Mark Sussman dissenting.
The decisions came after a debate among the board members as to whether they should go along with SHP’s requested changes when the school blatantly did not follow the plan approved by the Zoning Board in 2010. Though only the zoning department has the authority to penalize those who go against board members’ decisions through court summonses, Buechler said he believed that the board had to send a message that acting without its permission will not be tolerated. Otherwise, he said Seton Hall Prep’s unauthorized work could set a dangerous precedent for others who may wish to change site plans as they go.
“If we don’t draw a line,” Buechler said, “then we’re basically saying ‘Go ahead and do it. There’s no need to tell us. Have a field day.’”
But Zoning Board Chairman Philip Neuer disagreed that taking such action was appropriate. He did acknowledge that he would prefer to see the municipal court rule on violations cases before they are brought before the Zoning Board rather than the other way around. And he said he regrets the township’s actions, referring to the fact that the township granted approval for work related to the batting cages and shot put area relocations without the Zoning Board’s consent. But in the end, the chairman said the board’s responsibility is only to decide on the merits of a plan.
“The review of this application has nothing to do with the fact that it’s been built,” Neuer said. “The question is: Is there a reason why the batting cages are more efficient or work better here, why the shot put area is more efficient or works better here? Would we have approved that? And I undoubtedly say ‘yes.’ I would have approved it, and I think we all would have approved it.”
Monsignor Michael Kelly, president of Seton Hall Prep, said he is “absolutely thrilled” that the board ruled in favor of the modifications. Now that the changes, which include converting the stadium field from grass to synthetic turf and the installation of a new scoreboard, have been passed, Kelly said the school can finally move toward completing the complex expansion. He said the last two major projects left are the field conversion and the construction of the bleachers; SHP will apply for building permits for those soon. Seton Hall Prep hopes to have all work done by mid-fall, the monsignor said.
That is good news for students, who will be able to use the stadium field for football, soccer and lacrosse once it is completed. Kelly said the school’s baseball fields and tennis courts are already being used to rave reviews. And he looks forward to finally being able to offer the rest of the expanded athletic facility to the boys after years of waiting.
“It’s a tremendous benefit for all of the students,” Kelly said of the complex. “We just didn’t have the facilities that were necessary and required to support a very fine athletic program. And now we do.”
But Kelly acknowledged that SHP did not act properly in proceeding with construction without Zoning Board approval. The monsignor said the decision was made to move the batting cages after it the school realized that moving them closer to the baseball dugout would be more convenient for the players and also would save several trees. The shot put area was moved after it was discovered that its location on the site plan was the same spot where an approved building was supposed to go, he said. And though the school did obtain approval from the township to do the work related to those relocations, Kelly said it did not realize it needed to go back before the board to make what he saw as relatively minor changes.
Kelly said he understands why the board members would be upset.
“Their concerns are valid,” Kelly told the Chronicle in a July 22 phone interview. “We have to say that we were at fault, kind of unknowingly so, but at fault nonetheless for not going back for changes to the original site plan. So they were correct in chastising us.”
In addition to the batting cages and shot put area, Kelly said a set of 145-seat bleachers was constructed without either the township’s or the Zoning Board’s approval. He said the township fined the school $1,000 as a result. The minutes of the June 16 board meeting mention that more than 400 feet of sidewalks were also installed without board permission.
The fact that the Zoning Board did nothing in spite of all the unauthorized work is highly disappointing to Loren Svetvilas, a resident who lives near the complex. Yet Svetvilas, who was one of the leading community voices in opposition to the expansion prior to its approval in 2010, is not surprised by the board’s latest decision. He said he has seen the board members vote similarly on past occasions when SHP did work without approval. But he still thinks this is unfair.
“Residents are held accountable but Seton Hall Prep gets a free ticket,” Svetvilas said in a July 22 phone interview, adding that approving already-completed modifications just because one would have voted in their favor anyway can lead to repercussions down the road. “If they start permitting people to just do what they want and then ask for permission with no consequences, then we’re in for it. People are just going to start knocking stuff down, building, encroaching on property lines, affecting all the runoff — it’s going to be a mess.”
Fellow community member Elaine Lehmert was also frustrated by the Zoning Board’s approval. In her opinion, Lehmert said the board allows SHP to do whatever it wants to the detriment of residents instead of standing up to the school. If it were up to her, she told the Chronicle that she would make Seton Hall Prep take out anything it had built without approval.
Kevin Malanga, the resident who brought the unauthorized work to the Zoning Board’s attention, said he is actually not upset over the board members’ decision, adding that he understands the board was in a difficult position since it does not have the authority to punish anyone. He is optimistic that SHP can maintain a good relationship with its neighbors moving forward.
What Malanga really wants to know is why Zoning Board Engineer Eric Keller did not notice or stop these “very obvious deviations” from the site plan when he was supposed to be inspecting the site. He said Keller and all township officials should be more diligent in overseeing projects moving forward. He also said they should also always act fairly.
“I hope the appropriate officials do not engage in favoritism, and that all citizens and all institutions within the township are treated equally,” Malanga said in a July 22 phone interview.
Keller did not respond to requests for comment before press time July 26.
Photos by Sean Quinn