Appellate court halts redevelopment plan in West Orange

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court halted a redevelopment plan for the Executive Drive property in West Orange on Sept. 11, when a panel of three judges unanimously decided to reverse the decision of the lower court, which dismissed the complaint. Resident Kevin Malanga filed the lawsuit in 2018 against the township, the Township Council and the Planning Board.

The council approved a plan in December 2019 to give the developers of Executive Drive a long-term tax exemption, also known as a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, in hopes of setting in motion a plan to relocate the West Orange Public Library and Animal Shelter to 10 Rooney Circle and build a dog park on the property. The ordinance passed with a vote of 4-1; Councilman Joe Krakoviak cast the only opposing vote.

The deal would turn 100 and 200 Executive Drive into a large apartment building, while redeveloping 10 Rooney Circle into a new library and animal shelter, and building a dog park on 2 acres of land on the property. The PILOT is for 30 years at $1.2 million a year, which financial adviser Michael Hanley said at a Nov. 26, 2019, council meeting represents 10.5 percent of the annual gross revenue. In the second decade of the three-decade deal, the payment will go up to 11.5 percent, and in the final 10 years will go up another percentage point, to 12.5 percent.

“I consider it reprehensible how the elected officials betrayed the trust of the voters,” Malanga said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Sept. 19. “It didn’t match the criteria of blighted.”

Paul Grygiel, a planner from the firm Phillips Preiss Grygiel Leheny Hughes Planning and Real Estate Consultants LLC, who works for the town, wrote the initial report in 2017 that said the property qualified as an area in need of redevelopment. Grygiel declined to comment in an email to the Chronicle on Sept. 21.

The appellate court’s decision stops the redevelopment plan from moving forward, but the Sept. 22 council meeting agenda listed two resolutions to authorize another study on the property to start the process over, in addition to an executive session discussing the lawsuit. The meeting was held after press time on Sept. 22.

Council President Michelle Casalino said in a phone interview on Sept. 21 that she would withhold comment on matters of litigation until after the meeting.

Councilman Joe Krakoviak said in a Sept. 15 press release that the appellate court’s decision is a “win for the taxpayers in West Orange.”

“The 30-year property tax abatement granted to this project would cut its revenues to the town by 50 percent — with taxpayers left holding the empty bag by paying higher taxes,” he said. “No one believes this developer won’t develop its property without ‘incentives.’ This is purely unnecessary corporate welfare that is certainly not in the best interests of taxpayers and the town’s finances.”

Township administrators declined to comment.

Mayor Robert Parisi said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Sept. 21 that, on reintroduction, disagreements can be resolved.

“Hopefully we can address the court’s concerns,” he said. “We still believe in this project.”

The town can appeal the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court, but Parisi said because there’s no guarantee the Supreme Court will entertain it, the township believes it best to reintroduce the plan to the council and possibly make changes.

“This is not about an economic driver anymore,” Malanga said. “In no way can apartments be considered an economic driver. It’s the desire of the township to give a tax abatement. That’s wrong, given the economy, when many are struggling to pay their taxes.”