SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Following earlier village plans, the Special Improvement District in South Orange Village Center has been expanded to include 25 additional commercial properties. These properties will now fall under the South Orange Village Center Alliance’s purview and pay an assessment to help fund the SOVCA.
At the March 14 Board of the Trustees meeting, Ordinance No. 2016-10 was passed on second and final reading by a 5-0 vote, with Trustee Jeff DuBowy absent. It had previously been passed Feb. 22 on first reading with a 5-0 vote, with Trustee Deborah Davis Ford absent.
This newest ordinance amends Ordinance No. 2012-01, which was passed on second and final reading March 12, 2012, to create the SID. That ordinance also created the SOVCA, a nonprofit, to manage the SID.
In January, SOVCA Executive Director Bob Zuckerman and Chairman Matt Glass gave a lengthy presentation to the BOT about the SOVCA budget and laid out the rationale for expanding the SID.
In his statements to the board and in a letter sent to all property owners whose land would fall into the expansion zone, Zuckerman extolled the benefits of being included in the SID.
“We strongly believe that, with the advent of the new development that is coming to our area as well as development that is being proposed, now is the right time to expand our district to include these properties so that they too can receive the same benefits from being in the SID that the rest of our district receives,” Zuckerman wrote in the letter to property owners, a copy of which he provided to the News-Record.
Among the benefits listed in the letter were cleanliness of the area, marketing, streetscape improvements, business recruitment and retention, and support and advocacy.
In his letter, Zuckerman also explained how the SID and SOVCA are funded. In the 2015 operating budget, which came in at $287,875, Zuckerman explained that 22.3 percent came from the special assessments collected from SID property owners. Approximately 55.6 percent came from BOT funding, with the rest coming from special events, corporate sponsorships and private donations.
He further explained that each property paid 49 cents per $100 of valuation; for example, a property assessed at $5,000,000 would pay an annual fee of $245 to the SID.
“We can say that larger properties with higher assessed values would certainly pay a higher assessment than smaller properties with much lower assessed values. Properties that are completely residential are exempt from paying an assessment,” Zuckerman wrote in the letter.
Zuckerman also assured the trustees that all property owners in the expansion zone had been notified of the coming change. The executive director had brought with him a staff of certified mail receipts, showing that his letter to property owners had been delivered and received.
“I’m 100-percent confident that we reached all the stakeholders,” Zuckerman said March 14.
And many future SID members seem excited by the prospect.
Maplewood resident Deborah Engel, owner of Work and Play on Prospect Street in South Orange, wrote a letter supporting the expansion and SOVCA’s work, which was read aloud in part at the meeting by Zuckerman; a copy was sent to the News-Record by Engel.
“My business currently falls just outside the alliance’s border, but I have seen firsthand the benefits of their support and the disadvantages for not being part of the alliance,” she wrote, explaining that, as her business was not previously included in the SID, she was not asked to participate in SOVCA events and initiatives.
“As a business striving to create a community for parents trying to balance work, life, kids and careers, we long to be part of the greater South Orange community,” Engel wrote. “But right now, we feel more like the last child picked for the team in P.E. class, as we are not currently include in townwide events and business district planning — unless we find out about them and ask to be included.”
Engel also stressed that the relationship would be symbiotic, with participating businesses contributing much to the community through their participating in village events and initiatives and through helping to build a thriving and welcoming downtown.
But not everyone supports the change. Nick Ciopettini, president of South Orange Storage on Valley Street, which will now be in the SID, spoke at length at the March 14 meeting opposing the ordinance. While speakers are usually limited to three minutes, President Sheena Collum allowed Ciopettini to speak for more than 12 minutes, as he explained that he was there representing several business owners who had been unable to attend.
“I know enough not to stand in the way of progress, but I also have to come out and stand up for my business,” Ciopettini said during the ordinance’s hearing. The business owner explained that, while the assessment he would be paying to the SID would be “small,” it is too much when added to other increasing costs, such as health care, utilities and insurance. “Yes, the special assessment is small, but when you add all those things together, it’s like the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back.”
Ciopettini said that it is not feasible for him to raise rates as that would drive potential customers to other moving and storage companies. He sees being included in the SID as a lose-lose for him and similar businesses, which he claimed will not see any benefits to being included in the district.
“There are benefits to being in a SID and if my business was in the downtown, were a restaurant or retail store, it might make sense,” he continued, saying that events like “breakfast with the Easter bunny” do nothing for a storage company.
At the end of his long and researched speech, Ciopettini told the trustees: “I apologize for taking too much of your time, but you’re taking my money.”
Despite Ciopettini’s impassioned plea for a reprieve, the board members still felt that expanding the SID would be in the town’s best interest, and many responded to Ciopettini personally.
“Sometimes things aren’t necessarily always on the first blush fair and equal,” Trustee Stephen Schnall told Ciopettini, citing the fact that residents pay for the school district, regardless of whether they have children enrolled. “In the case of the Village Alliance, they have proven themselves to be very financially responsible.
“I’m very in favor of this ordinance.”
Trustee Mark Rosner pointed out that it had always been the village’s intent to expand the SID in increments and that the benefited property owners outnumber the property owners who feel they are being harmed. He said that not everyone benefits, “but they’re in the community and we can’t pick and choose and say, ‘OK, this one is out.’ We have to look at the zone as a whole.”
Davis Ford, who was staunchly in favor of expanding the SID, told Ciopettini that she understood the challenges he was facing, “but when you’re part of a community, there are sometimes indirect benefits.”
“The value is that this is for the overall improvement and aesthetics for our community, so if these decisions weren’t made and South Orange were not appealing in the aesthetics and the looks of it, many people may not want to come and do business in South Orange,” she said. “It is important to accept the indirect benefits, even if you are in a storage facility.”
Collum advised Ciopettini to work with the SOVCA to get maximum benefit from it. While she allowed that Ciopettini’s business will not benefit from every alliance program and event, she reminded him that the SOVCA can still help him with marketing and can work to bring in more business for him.
Collum also reminded all present that, while the BOT moved forward with the SID that night, the SID’s five-year review is coming up in January 2017, at which time everyone is encouraged to contribute their thoughts on the changes in the downtown.