WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council discussed purchasing the wooded property known as the Mt. Pleasant Forest at its meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 24, after many area residents asked council members to preserve the undeveloped land. This took place after the Open Space Commission voted to recommend the township purchase the land. The council did not take action at the meeting, but discussed how to move forward in acquiring the 12-acre property.
“There are 800 trees in jeopardy,” resident Charlotte Wescott said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “Not only are they trees, which we all need for climate and preservation, those trees do a wonderful job of absorbing moisture and wet rain that will be cascading down on to Mt. Pleasant Avenue, and we all know what a dangerous place that is to hydroplane.”
Wescott said, because so much of West Orange is developed and crowded, this is all the more reason for the township to buy the property.
“We have a wonderful opportunity to save that little wild piece of West Orange for all of us and our children going forward,” she said. “I encourage you to do the right thing here.”
Susan Lenczyk, a member of the Open Space Commission, also outlined the reasons the township should buy the land, among which were saving the habitat of the natural plants and animals that make their home there.
“It is a thickly forested plot that provides habitat and refuge for many species, including one known endangered one,” Lenczyk said at the meeting. “The trees produced large volumes of oxygen and consume large volumes of carbon dioxide, as well as provide cooling to help fight climate change. A significant portion of the property contains a steep slope, and the trees hold soil and water in place. The stretch of road below the site is already hazardous, as everybody knows. Any development on any portion of the property would exacerbate the hazards on the road. Deforestation on a grand scale contributes to mudslides, reduction in air quality and climate change. Deforestation on a small scale, occurring in multiple places, has the same effects.”
Resident Sally Malanga said that even four houses built on 2-acre lots would eliminate 500 trees on the property, and she encouraged the council to move forward with purchasing the property.
“Most of you have written or stated to voters that you would vote yes to acquire the ecological gem,” Malanga said. “This is what makes voters happy and secure: green spaces with numerous trees, as they are living, visible examples of how much the town cares for the residents.”
She cited the 5 acres of land the township had purchased on the opposite side of the Mt. Pleasant Forest, and the land known as “The Rock,” comprising 6 acres near the top of Mt. Pleasant Avenue that have been preserved as open space.
“I’m asking that you watch this Mt. Pleasant property carefully and seize the chance to secure it, which will create a nice triangle of green spaces,” Malanga said. “When these 800 trees are secured and preserved, residents will drive by and know the wisdom and inspired action of our town council.”
David Yennior, a Belleville resident who is co-chairman of the Gateway Group chapter of the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization, also asked the council to buy the land at the meeting. He provided a draft of a resolution that the council could use to move forward.
“Just the other day, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old phenom from Sweden, spoke at the United Nations, and she said that each of us can do our little bit for the environment,” Yennior said. “This is something you can do. From what I understand, this is the last piece of undeveloped land of this size in West Orange. The fact that it has this real forest there, of 12 acres, it’s quite immense. This is your chance. If you do this, it’ll show the residents of West Orange how committed you are to the environment.”
Morgan Bush, who recently moved to Ridge Road near the property, asked the council at the meeting to buy the forest.
“We chose West Orange, among other reasons, because of the green space it has to offer,” Bush said at the meeting, explaining why she and her husband had moved to the town from Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of public space and that was something that we didn’t have in Los Angeles and were looking for in our move. I think that, by purchasing this 12-acre land, not only are you showing your continued commitment to green space and saving the environment, but also attracting young families from other towns, other cities, other states. This would show very good faith of where our property taxes are going and that you have a continued commitment to the green space.”
Councilman Joe Krakoviak, who serves as the council liaison to the Open Space Commission, said at the meeting he has been advocating for the township to buy the Mt. Pleasant Forest for many years. In his comments at the meeting, he said this year is the third anniversary of the Open Space Commission’s first recommendation that the council buy the land. Before the town can make the purchase, two appraisals must be done; one has already been completed.
Krakoviak said Open Space Commission Chairman Joe McCartney asked council members and the administration if a resolution authorizing the administration to look into buying the property would be on the agenda, as similar resolutions have been when the township has bought other property in the past. Councilwoman Michelle Casalino also asked about the status of the resolution. Krakoviak said Council President Jerry Guarino did not respond to an inquiry about adding the topic to the meeting’s agenda.
Guarino, in his response at the meeting, said he did not have anything to say about a possible resolution.
“I join Councilwoman McCartney in being concerned about any time we take open space off the property tax rolls,” Krakoviak said, agreeing with Councilwoman Susan McCartney’s comments about the loss of property tax revenue if the township owns the land. “It’s a balancing act and you have to decide whether you’re going to do that or not. But I will point out, for the Rock Spring purchase, we took many more multiples of the property tax revenue from Rock Spring off of the tax rolls than we’re talking about here. I think we should move forward on this.”