Council votes to buy Rock Spring

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council at its Feb. 19 meeting voted in favor of the township purchasing the Rock Spring Golf Course, moving the town forward in the process of buying the course to preserve it as open space.

The council voted on two resolutions and two ordinances on first reading. The first resolution, passed unanimously, allowed the township to solicit a contract from a maintenance company to maintain and operate the course. The second resolution, also passed unanimously, is an application to the Local Finance Board requesting a waiver of down payment for a bond ordinance.

An ordinance authorizing the purchase of the property was approved unanimously on first reading and will be heard on second reading at the March 5 meeting. An ordinance approving a bond to buy the golf course was approved with a vote of 4-1, with Councilman Joe Krakoviak casting the only opposing vote.

Mayor Robert Parisi outlined the administration’s vision for the 138-acre property in a presentation at the meeting, clarifying that the council was not voting on a plan for the course, but only to buy it. The purchase price is $11,283,000, and the township is applying for Green Acres funding to cover some of that cost.

“Montclair Golf Club throughout this entire process has been incredibly cooperative and they recognize that the township wants to operate it as a golf course,” Parisi said at the meeting. “They have agreed to maintain the golf course to prepare it for golf prior to closing. If we don’t close by April 30, the township will pay $3,000 a day for that upkeep.”

The purchase of the property also includes the clubhouse and all its contents, including golf equipment. The name “Rock Spring” is also included in the sale price.

In his presentation, Parisi said the township wants to buy the golf course because the property is currently zoned for 2-acre lots which, if bought by a developer, could be developed. There is enough room for 60 large single-family homes, which Parisi said would eliminate open space and recreation space, and significantly impact the school district.

“It’s the township’s belief that it’s not realistic that any developer is going to buy this property and develop homes on 2-acre lots,” Parisi said. “They’re going to do everything in their power, even if it requires court action, to get a much denser development on that property.”

If a developer builds a denser development on the property, Parisi said, there could potentially be 10 to 20 units per acre there, creating traffic issues and an even greater impact on the school district.

In his presentation, Parisi outlined some of the possibilities for what the township would do with the Rock Spring property if the purchase moves forward. He said the township will maintain the site as a golf course for at least the next two years as a trial period, and possibly build a recreation facility and create walking and running paths. Some of the property will be maintained as general open space. Parisi also said that about 18 acres could be reserved to build a small-scale senior residential development to potentially sell in the future, and also that the property is a possible location for the town’s Department of Public Works.

“This is the largest single bond this township has ever entertained,” Parisi said at the meeting. “We’re not minimizing the significance of that. The question we have to ask ourselves as a community is, ‘Are we OK with the Montclair Golf Club just selling this on the market to a developer and waiting out years of litigation to see it developed?’ We don’t think so.”

Parisi said the purchase will not have a tax impact on the 2019 municipal budget.

“Because the lost tax revenue for 2019 represents less than 5 percent of the total bond, the Local Finance Board will allow us to put that lost tax revenue in this bond, which means the cost to the township for 2019 to buy this property is zero,” Parisi said.

Parisi also laid out the impact on the budget for the next seven years, saying the biggest payment would come in 2020, due to the lost tax revenue from the Montclair Golf Club. In 2020, the bond payment is $911,472. In 2021, the township will pay $891,237, and in 2022 the cost will be $688,324. It decreases until 2026, when the bond will be paid in full with the last $597,606.

Of the West Orange residents in the audience at the meeting, many were in favor of the project, saying that the land should not fall into the hands of a private developer.

“I think this is a terrific plan,” resident Steve Burns said during the public portion of the meeting, adding that he had once been a member of the Rock Spring Country Club. “A developer coming in could do any number of things. I think taking the time to get control of the land now so that you can make decisions is good going forward.”

Resident Terry Cunningham agreed, saying the course has been featured in New Jersey Golf Magazine as one of the state’s “hidden gems.”

“That’s the way the people from Rock Spring feel about this course,” Cunningham said. “Not only do we enjoy playing it, but we love it. I think that preserving it the way you’re planning on doing it is the best thing we can do for this property.”

Resident Jim Hall said the golf course should be purchased to prevent a developer from buying it because the benefits outweigh the cost to the township.

“The alternative is a disaster,” Hall said at the meeting. “We’re not just keeping a nice golf course, we’re preventing a huge, horrible development where we all live around it. It’s going to be years of litigation.”

Hall also said that if a developer were to buy the property, it would no longer be operated as a golf course, so the grass and lake would not be properly maintained.

“Every single person that lives in the vicinity of this golf course absolutely supports this plan,” Hall said.

However there were a few members of the public who spoke out against the purchase. Giancarlo Cefalo said the administration should focus on other priorities.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said at the meeting. “My issue is you’re moving quickly to get this done. It’s been 14 months and the first responders don’t have a contract. That’s an issue.”

Krakoviak voted in favor of the two resolutions and the ordinance to buy the property, but not in favor of the bond ordinance. At the meeting, he expressed concerns about the amount of debt the township would incur as a result of the purchase. In a Feb. 21 email to the West Orange Chronicle, Krakoviak said he had voted in favor of the resolutions and first ordinance to keep the process moving forward.

“This proposed project carries substantial uncertainty, risk and cost at a time when other issues are also vying for the council’s attention and community’s limited resources, such as the union contract negotiations and the prospect that the mayor’s bargaining position has the potential to significantly degrade our public safety capabilities,” he said. “While I value open space and recreation — as well as the other benefits the council authorizes to the community — I also believe in balancing the benefit of any spending with the risk and cost of that benefit, including a comparison of this resource allocation relative to what I see as the priorities for the community. I can value the benefit but believe that the costs outweigh it.”

In a Feb. 25 email, Krakoviak said that, although he is in favor of open space, he does not want to add more debt to the township’s budget.

“If we borrow through bonding for this project, our indebtedness will rise $12.5 million, or 14.4 percent, with the strike of a pen,” he said. “That would mean that since 2010, our debt would have risen $32.36 million, or 54 percent.”

Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown voted in favor of the bond ordinance, but with reservations about how it would affect the 2019 budget. She said that because the council has not been presented with the initial budget, she does not know how it factors into the year’s financial plan.

“I wanted to be sure that we mitigated the financial impact,” Matute-Brown said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Feb. 24. “There’s great potential but I have to make sure it’s in the best interest of the township.”

Matute-Brown said that, while there will be no tax impact on this year’s budget, she has to think about the future.

“I want to make sure it’s beneficial, and not just in 2020 and 2021. It’s not just this first year. Looking at the budget is important. I am happy to know that the town did approach the county about it, it helps me to know that we’ve done everything we can to leave no stone unturned,” she said.

At the meeting, Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said the township pays down debt every year and that if the county were to buy the golf course, West Orange would lose tax revenue.

“You’re absolutely right, we do have a lot of other things that we have to get done. It’s a very busy agenda this year,” Casalino said. “But to lose control of that site is going to be detrimental to this community.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic