Conservationists seek changes to development plans

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Members of a local conservancy group are expressing disappointment that the latest concept plan presented by Garden Homes Inc., which is proposing to build 104 single-family homes on the 120.5-acre parcel of land it owns behind the West Essex Highlands condominium complex, is not in compliance with an agreement Garden Homes made with the group in 2004.

Garden Homes’ 2004 agreement with the West Essex Committee Against Rezoning Excess — a group largely made up of Highlands residents — states that access to the tract of land will only be through Warner Road, with Kuzik Drive and Bayowski Road only being used for emergency access. The concept plan presented during the developer’s Feb. 9 public meeting contradicts this, offering regular access points through all three streets.

This does not sit well with WE CARE founder Paul Tractenberg, who sent a letter to Garden Homes attorney, Ron Shimanowitz, on Feb. 26, requesting that the current concept plan be modified to reflect the agreement. Tractenberg told the West Orange Chronicle he finds it upsetting that, during the public meeting, the developer was eager to tout that it was following the similar agreements it had made with Essex Fells and Verona while forgetting about the one it made with his own group at around the same time. By bringing this matter to Shimanowitz’s attention, he wants that to change.

“They obviously took it seriously at the time — they were anxious to get WE CARE on board to the degree the agreement provided it,” Tractenberg said in a March 3 phone interview. “Now I guess they find it inconvenient to remember or recognize the agreement.

“My hope is he will decide, as they did at the time, that (the agreement) is enforceable,” he continued.

The issue is an important one for WE CARE, which has argued that having access to the proposed development solely through Highlands streets will greatly increase traffic and put pedestrians in danger. Adding Kuzik and Bayowski as access points will only make the problem worse, Tractenberg said, since they are both small roads that will not be able to easily handle the estimated 1,000 car trips per day resulting from the addition of 104 new houses.

“I think it would be very disruptive to our community,” Tractenberg said.

Garden Homes Director of Development Mark Hoffman said he takes Tractenberg’s concerns seriously, stressing that he is not brushing them aside as suggested in the letter. At the same time, Hoffman said his company simply cannot address every individual’s issues when so many have been raised. He said Garden Homes takes all ideas into consideration, but not every one is guaranteed to be included in the concept plan.

“I pay attention to everybody, but it’s just a question of how do you do that properly where you’re accounting for the concerns everyone has at once,” Hoffman told the Chronicle in a March 7 phone interview. “We want to try and do what’s best for as many people as possible and build a project that’s acceptable to the municipality.”

In order to further appease as many Highlands residents as possible, Hoffman said Garden Homes will be working with a liaison from the Highlands condominium association to address any issues that may arise during construction. For instance, he said the developer will alert the liaison to construction schedules so that residents are prepared for work such as blasting. Additionally, he said community members will be able to report property damage to the liaison, who will report it to Garden Homes. The developer will then respond to each situation individually.

By having this system in place, the director of development said Garden Homes and the Highlands residents will hopefully be on the same page throughout the development process.

“When people understand when things are happening and how they’re happening, it tends to be a much easier process,” Hoffman said.

But WE CARE would prefer not to have the land developed at all, which is why it is still pursuing its mission of purchasing the tract of land from Garden Homes. According to longtime member Karen Feinblatt, the organization has already met with conservancy groups, including the Trust for Public Land, to discuss the possibility of buying the property and preserving it as public space. And it has already received a few endorsements for this idea, including a resolution of support from the West Orange Open Space and Recreation Commission and a statement in the 2010 Master Plan Update that the land should “remain undeveloped and preserved as open space.”

Most recently, the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club proclaimed its continued support of preserving the land after previously issuing a resolution in 2005. Director Jeff Tittel told the Chronicle that the club feels saving the land is important because it is home to numerous species of animals and is in the geographic range of the endangered Indiana bat. Tittel added that the tens of thousands of trees on the property also purify the air and absorb water, preventing flooding that could become a problem if many trees are cut down. Garden Homes’ initial plan to develop the property, which was rejected by the Planning Board in 2006, at one point stated that 27,000 trees would be destroyed.

Overall, the Sierra Club director said the land is an asset simply by being undeveloped, which is why it should stay that way.

“There’s already a lot of development in the area,” Tittel said in a March 3 phone interview. In fact, according to the 2010 Open Space and Recreation Plan Update, West Orange only has 316 acres of undeveloped land including this parcel. “So this land has a very important function. It’s sort of an oasis in an already developed area. It helps mitigate the development that’s around it. If you end up paving it over, the environmental impact will be worse.”

Though he does not know exactly how many trees will be cut down at this point, Hoffman said Garden Homes will try to save as many mature trees as possible. He also said the developer is proposing a drainage system that would catch storm water runoff and prevent it from affecting neighboring properties, so residents should not worry about flooding.

Meanwhile, West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi told the Chronicle that the township is also in favor of preserving the land, though it cannot help fund the purchase of the property. Parisi said it is just a matter of whether WE CARE can raise enough money to fund such a venture, guessing that the land could be valued at $20 to $25 million.

But Tractenberg said he does not believe the property is worth that much. Taking into consideration that two appraisals done in 2006 valued the property at approximately $15 million, as well as the facts that Garden Homes is proposing to build 104 homes and West Orange property values have declined by roughly 25 to 30 percent in the past 10 years, the WE CARE founder calculated that the tract of land should actually be priced in the range of $8 to $10 million.

And that cost would be reduced to approximately $5 million if the Planning Board forces the developer to comply with current zoning regulations requiring a maximum of 60 homes, according to his calculations.

With those more “attainable” numbers, Tractenberg said he is optimistic that WE CARE can raise the funds to save the land.

And that is apparently not out of the realm of possibility. According to Hoffman, Garden Homes is willing to discuss selling the property. But the developer would have to analyze a number of factors — such as the offer itself and the number of acres being sought — before agreeing to any sale, he said. He added that he could not comment on the price for which Garden Homes would be interested in selling the land.

With no offer in place, however, the concept plan will continue on to the Planning Board for its approval. Hoffman said he did not know when the hearings will start, though he hopes it will be within the next few months.

Even if the proposed development reaches the planning board stage, WE CARE’s Feinblatt said the group is not giving up hope of stopping the project. She pointed out that the organization has more support from West Orange residents and people from neighboring towns than it did in 2006, when they were successful in building a case before the board as to why the project would not be right for the area. And if they triumphed then, she said there is no reason why it could not happen again.

“If push comes to shove and there are hearings, we will be there to present our case every step of the way,” Feinblatt told the Chronicle in a March 4 phone interview.

“Last time everyone said ‘You can never beat a developer,'” she continued. “Well, we were David and they were Goliath and people were shocked when David beat Goliath.”