WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council unanimously passed an ordinance on March 5 approving the purchase of the Rock Spring Country Club, allowing the township to move forward with buying the land from the Montclair Golf Course. An ordinance that would approve a $12 million bond to buy the 138-acre property will be heard on second reading at the March 19 meeting, and if approved will complete the process for the town to purchase the site.
Mayor Robert Parisi said at a Feb. 27 community meeting and at several other council meetings that the administration wants to maintain the property as a public golf course, in addition to preserving it as open space with walking paths, parkland and recreation space. However, the ordinance passed at the March 5 meeting and the ordinance on the March 19 agenda only approve the purchase, not the plan for the property.
Members of the public, who are largely supportive of the township buying the golf course, were at the March 5 meeting speaking about the ordinance. Eric Applegate, a new resident of West Orange who lives in the Rock Spring neighborhood, said that the opportunity to buy the land is too good to pass up.
“I think it’s a really unique opportunity for the town to acquire such a large piece of property and under township control decide the future of what we as a town do with it,” Applegate said at the meeting. “I think for the larger West Orange community there’s tremendous opportunity if we take the time do to a very thoughtful, well researched, well planned process to come up with what is the long-term strategy that meets the needs of the broader community.”
Applegate said he is concerned that if a developer were to buy the property instead of the township, the developer would build apartment buildings or many single-family homes from which the township would not benefit.
Vivian Demas, another West Orange resident, agreed with Applegate and said the town would not be able to handle a potential development.
“Our infrastructure in this town just cannot meet that demand,” Demas said at the meeting. “Once that piece of land is out of our hands, it is gone. So while it is absolutely fiscally responsible for people to be concerned about us carrying this net right now, I think we have to find a way.”
While the 2019 municipal budget has not yet been presented to the council, Parisi said the purchase would not affect this year’s town budget. However, in 2020, the bond payment would be $911,472. In 2021, the township would pay $891,237, and in 2022 the cost would be $688,324. The cost would continue to decrease until 2026, when the bond would be paid in full with a final payment of $597,606. According to the administration, the tax impact would be $49 per average household.
“We’ve got to look at what best serves our future as a whole and not on an isolated developer coming in and making a lot of money at our expense,” Demas said. “Even if it is somewhat painful financially to start, there is a benefit to be realized and losing it is just not acceptable. That’s what will happen if we don’t take the steps to preserve it.”
Bill Reed, who lives on Rock Spring Road right near the golf course, said the township buying the property would benefit those in town who never would have had a chance to enjoy it if not for the sale.
“It’s a beautiful place and it’s wonderful to think that all the residents of West Orange could benefit from the purchase of this property,” Reed said at the meeting. “It would be nice to share this area with walkways for the residents, and to preserve green space is very important.”
Reed said at a meeting that when he and his neighbors had discussed the possibility of the town buying Rock Spring, everyone was supportive of the measure. He also said many residents would be willing to work with the town and have discussions about the plan going forward.
While Councilman Joe Krakoviak voted in favor of moving forward with the process, he said at the meeting that he still has reservations about approving the bond to finalize the sale at the next meeting.
“If we borrow more than $12 million to finance it, the town’s debt will rise to nearly $92 million,” he said, adding that debt in West Orange has risen by $32 million since the end of 2010. “We still do not know anything about our 2019 budget, what the tax increase is going to look like or what the capital budget is going to look like, so it’s likely that we would be adding more debt.”
In detailing things that would make him more comfortable with the purchase, Krakoviak said he would like to see a more dedicated way to pay back the bond, other than relying on Green Acres funding that is not guaranteed.
“The other thing I would like to see to make me more comfortable is if we could get some sort of commitment by the administration and by the council that we need to cut back on our borrowing going forward, that this is it for a long time,” he said. “The last thing I want to see is adding another $12 million in debt and then adding on debt in addition to that.”
He also outlined some concerns with the administration’s proposed plan for the course, saying that he doesn’t want to see the Department of Public Works moved to the site and doesn’t want to change the golf course from 18 holes to nine holes. Krakoviak also said that, while the residents who have spoken up in support of the purchase live in the Rock Spring area and will be the most impacted, buying this property would affect all residents.
“A lot of the people who are talking here have a real interest in this because they live so close and will be most impacted and are the most familiar with the property,” Krakoviak said. “But doing this project would be a significant allocation of the town’s total resources going forward over the next decade or so.”
Council President Jerry Guarino refuted Krakoviak’s point about resident who live near Rock Spring, saying that he has spoken with residents who don’t live in the neighborhood and are supportive of the project.
“It shows the wide breadth of people who want the purchase to go through,” Guarino said at the meeting. “They feel it’s important to move forward. At the end of the day, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is a challenge, it is a risk. But at the end of the day, I believe our residents believe it is truly necessary for us to maintain the quality of life the township presents.”
Councilwoman Susan McCartney said that in order to make a plan for the property, the township first has to buy it.
“We have to go through with the purchase so that we can get to the development of a plan,” McCartney said. “We know there are a lot of what-ifs, but preserving the property is paramount.”
Councilwoman Michelle Casalino was also in support of the plan moving forward, saying that if the property were to be bought by a developer it would be detrimental to West Orange as a whole. She also reiterated the fact that the council was voting on the purchase and not the plan.
“As a council we know this is a good purchase to be making,” Casalino said. “About the nine-hole course, many people are excited and some are not. There’s time to do due diligence on that and get a plan together. But right now we have to make sure that we have control of the property.”
Similar to Krakoviak, Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown has expressed reservations about the purchase. At the meeting, she said she has had several conversations with the county, the mayor and West Orange Chief Financial Officer John Gross and that they have been cooperative in sharing information with her.
“There is a long-term implication with this,” Matute-Brown said at the meeting, adding that she wouldn’t necessarily vote against the final purchase. “I don’t want to lead you to believe that I don’t understand and don’t think this is a wonderful opportunity, but I have to make a decision that is a well-informed decision. I just want to know if we’re going to be OK in year three and in year four.”