Planning Board wants vision plan from TC

Planning Board goes middle path, holds off on voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on Eagle Rock designation

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Planning Board decided neither to recommend nor reject the idea of designating seven properties in the Eagle Rock commercial district as areas in need of redevelopment during its Aug. 3 meeting; instead, it voted to give the Township Council one year to create a vision plan for the region that it could review before choosing whether to proceed with redevelopment.

The board unanimously approved this option after Vice Chairman Robert Bagoff presented it as an alternative to voting a definitively either way. This way, Bagoff explained, the redevelopment study presented by professional planner Jeffrey Janota at its June 1 meeting can remain on the table until the board gets a better sense of what would occur if it actually recommends Janota’s findings.

“I do not want to kill it because I believe that there are qualities to what has been presented to us, and I do not want to lose the time and money that the town has spent on this,” Bagoff, who headed up the meeting in the absence of Chairman Ron Weston, said. “On the other hand, I don’t want to go forward until I can find something that makes sense where we can say ‘This is going to better serve the public and the public need.’”

The possibility of designating a portion of the Eagle Rock district as an area in need of redevelopment came about after the Township Council commissioned Janota to study the properties along Eagle Rock and Prospect avenues. The planner did so and determined that seven of the 18 locations he looked at — including the West Orange Plaza, the Verizon building and Mayfair Farms — met the criteria for redevelopment, which includes deleterious land use and obsolete layout.

During his first appearance before them, Janota urged the board members to consider redevelopment as a tool for creating a singular vision for the commercial district that could enhance the region’s economic viability. He said the designation would also make the properties eligible for benefits including bonds and payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, programs, which could be used to fix observed problems such as excessive parking and infrastructure issues.

But at the Aug. 3 meeting, the board seemed to doubt whether redevelopment was really necessary. Board member Jerry Eben particularly questioned why an area of redevelopment should be pursued when West Orange’s zoning and property maintenance officials could fix many of the problems Janota saw through enforcement. The issues would be resolved more quickly that way, Eben said, and the property owners would not feel as though the township were taking over.

Eben argued that the township should also commission a regional urban design team to create a comprehensive plan detailing the administration’s specific vision for how the entire Eagle Rock commercial district should look in the next 10 or 15 years. By doing so, he said everyone will know exactly what needs to be done from the start rather than having to figure out what to do with the properties after already marking them for redevelopment.

“That gives me a picture,” Eben said. “This hodgepodge of (seven properties) is just not the right way to do planning.”

Susan McCartney, a board member and councilwoman, agreed that it seemed the process was moving “backward” by trying to designate a redevelopment area without a particular vision in mind. McCartney also expressed concern over the fact that the properties Janota selected are mostly owned by private businesses, which would seemingly limit what West Orange could accomplish. She therefore wondered whether the township could achieve results similar to those of redevelopment through other means such as rigorous enforcement of zoning and property maintenance laws or by updating the township’s master plan.

“I’m still hung up on this area in need of redevelopment,” McCartney said, adding that she thought the district could be improved without one.

But Janota said the township might encounter some property issues that cannot be fixed through zoning or property-maintenance enforcement. And if zoning does allow for a solution, he said West Orange would still have to wait for an application for a use variance to go before the Zoning Board before anything could get done. Through redevelopment, he said the town can take a more “proactive” approach by creating a vision that unifies the seven properties rather than addressing issues through “piecemeal” improvements. The business owners would also work with the town to plan out changes, Janota pointed out, with the redevelopment designation providing the financial means and incentive for the owners to act quickly.

And property owners will not have anything forced on them either, Janota said. If an owner does not want to comply, he said, establishing a redevelopment overlay zone will just give the township the chance to think about what it could do with these properties in the future if West Orange ever decides to purchase them. He said it will not affect the locations’ current uses.

“The overlay zone is just protecting the underlying zoning,” Janota said. “We’re still saying ‘OK, this is the existing underlying zoning — all permitted uses with their variances, parking, everything.’ The overlay zone says ‘This is what we would like to see.’”

Most of the residents in attendance made it clear that they did not want to see a redevelopment area, though. Kevin Malanga specifically questioned Mayfair Farms’ inclusion on the list of properties, asking Janota if it was true that township CFO John Gross had emailed his firm H2M Architects + Engineers about considering it. Janota confirmed that Gross had contacted the firm since the planner had not realized that the banquet facility was actually part of the Eagle Rock commercial district. He stressed that it was his own professional opinion that the property should be included, however, adding that the Planning Board is free to remove it if it disagrees.

In the email correspondence between Gross and H2M senior project planner Jennifer Giorgianni — which Malanga provided to the Chronicle after obtaining it through an OPRA request — Gross indeed asked whether Mayfair Farms could be one of the properties studied for a potential redevelopment area. When Giorgianni inquired about the reason since Mayfair Farms “looked like a viable business in good condition,” the CFO answered that the open space is part of the land that a developer wants to redevelop.

Malanga urged the board not to recommend that the council move forward with redevelopment for the sake of West Orange’s residents. He said the property owners can afford to pay for their own improvements — they do not need to rely on taxpayers to do so through subsidized bonds or PILOT programs. Above all, he stressed that designating an area in need of redevelopment will only help developers who purchase these properties once those financial incentives are in place.

“This is all about benefiting the developer,” Malanga said before referring to Gross’ email about Mayfair Farms as evidence of that. “This is all about enhancing the value of this property and not enhancing the quality of life in this community.”

Rosary Morelli also spoke out against the necessity of establishing a redevelopment area, telling the board that she “can’t be convinced” that Mayfair Farms should be included. In her view, the way to improve the Eagle Rock commercial district is simply to start enforcing the zoning and property-maintenance laws better.

“A lot of those properties are neglected,” Morelli said. “They should be taken care of.”

Even a representative of Mayfair Farms cautioned the board members about recommending redevelopment. General manager Joanne Szibdat said merely the talk of the property being included in a redevelopment area has already impacted the banquet facility’s ability to do business easily. And though Janota’s report listed numerous issues with the property, including a leaking roof, basement flooding and an overflowing sanitary system — owner Marty Horn also was quoted as saying that the business had not been profitable in seven years — Szibdat said she has improved the facility and made sure it passed all health inspections in the five years she has been in charge. Before embarking on a “significant change” like redevelopment, she advised that the board listen to its zoning and health officials to make the best decision for the town.

Not everyone was opposed to redevelopment, though. Cary Heller, who owns the property on which the Eagle Rock Lanes is currently located, said a redevelopment area would offer a great opportunity for the township to attract redevelopers to improve the locations, which could in turn result in better land users and better ratables. In his own case, Heller said a redevelopment area would allow him to work with the township to decide how his property should be used in the event the bowling alley closes — which he said is a real possibility. Overall, he was optimistic about how redevelopment would affect West Orange.

“There’s no detriment to the town,” Heller said.

In the end, the Planning Board decided to go the middle route by approving Bagoff’s proposal along with an amendment proposed by Eben calling for greater enforcement of zoning and property-maintenance laws relating to those properties. But as township planner Paul Grygiel pointed out, the Township Council does not necessarily have to follow through with the board’s recommended course of action; it can do whatever it wants, including approving a resolution in favor of redevelopment, holding community meetings to obtain ideas for a vision plan or deciding against pursuing redevelopment altogether.

Photos by Sean Quinn