Board of Trustees candidates address voters at forum

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The Academy Heights Neighborhood Association hosted eight of the nine challengers running for the South Orange Board of Trustees in a debate on April 24, allowing residents to learn about the candidates’ platforms ahead of Election Day on May 14. Edward Grossi, who is running for one of the three open seats on the BOT, was not able to attend the debate.

The nine candidates have formed three slates: “SO Forward” with Matt Wonski, Stacey Trimble Borden and Grossi; “Your Voice, Our Village” with Bob Zuckerman, Donna Coallier and Summer Jones; and “Think Work Thrive Together” with Bobby Brown, Toshie Davis and Ed Moore.

Each candidate was given one question to answer at the debate, and those who wanted to rebut were given one minute to do so. Not every candidate answered every question. Several questions were about redevelopment in South Orange.

“New development that is done the right way, as some of the recent projects have been, is very important,” Zuckerman said at the debate. “Right now, residents bear 90 percent of the property tax burden. We need to support smart, mixed-use development in the commercial parts.”

Zuckerman said he is in support of the redevelopment project in progress that will turn Village Hall, which was recently sold by the town to a developer, into a restaurant.

“It’s really going to be an anchor for our downtown in the way that few places could be, but will also save the taxpayers $7 million in renovation and have Landmark Hospitality restore Village Hall to its 1890 luster,” he said. “Because right now it doesn’t look so great.”

Davis chimed in, saying that the village’s simplification of the permit process would make South Orange more attractive to potential developers.

“One way to preserve our housing stock is to actually make it easy for developers to take care of their properties,” Davis said at the debate. “We need to simplify the permit process and hold people accountable in keeping the character of the town.”

The candidates also discussed Payments In Lieu Of Taxes at the debate and the effect PILOTs have on the South Orange-Maplewood School District budget. Davis answered that question as well, saying that the village should develop a plan to move forward with fewer PILOTs.

“We have to make sure that we have a real plan to address them in town so that we have more money to spend on our town and on our children,” Davis said.

Wonski said PILOTs can be used effectively because the town has control over what deals with developers entail.

“We can tell the developer, ‘OK, this is what you’re going to pay,’” he said at the debate. “In terms of taking finance away from the schools, the great thing about it is that Maplewood and South Orange can come together and make a decision. If there’s money left over at the end of the year and there could be money left to give to the schools. Are they necessary in every situation? No, but they can be useful.”

Zuckerman said that he does support using PILOTs in redevelopment, though not necessarily in every case. He also pointed out that redevelopment does not always affect the number of students in the school district.

“I think many new developments may require a PILOT or the developers many require a PILOT to be able to redevelop it,” Zuckerman said. “A study showed how few school aged children actually live in most mixed-use buildings like the type that we see here. So yes, they are paying less taxes than they would if they were paying normal taxes, but it incentivizes them to develop a greater range of housing stocks for our seniors and younger folks who want to try South Orange before they buy a home. It provides much needed funding to the town.”

Brown said that while he thinks PILOTs can be useful, the town is not currently reaping the benefits that they can bring.

“That’s why I think being devoted, committed and absolutely entrenched in a master plan that is inclusive and that we all are a part of will change that leverage,” Brown said at the debate. “We have to make sure that ratables are part of the five-, 10-, 20-year future.”

Candidates were asked if they would support the BOT enacting ordinances that would require developers to design projects that are modeled after the historic look of the town. Both Borden and Moore answered, with Moore saying that developer designs should be incorporated into the town’s master plan. Borden said she wasn’t sure, mentioning that she thinks the South Orange Village Center Alliance would be the organization to deal with design.

Jones, who is on the Master Plan Management Committee, said South Orange must be proactive about telling redevelopers what it wants.

“Whoever the developer is has to listen to all of the guidelines that we as a town set forth,” Jones said. “People are allowed to come and voice their opinions on what they want their town to look like. We definitely need to standardize our process and make sure that things are put into place where we tell the developers what we want versus them telling us.”

Coallier said that her background in finance and accounting would be an asset to the BOT, because she would be able to work with developers to reach deals with which both parties would be happy.

“I helped my clients negotiate all kinds of deals,” she said at the debate. “We can persuade a developer to do something the way we want it done as opposed to the way they did it six towns over.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic