West Orange Township Council rejects Executive Drive settlement agreement

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council unanimously voted against settling a lawsuit with township resident Kevin Malanga at its April 6 meeting, rejecting an agreement that would have seen the town purchase 12 acres of open space on Ridge Road in addition to the carriage house several properties over. Malanga sued West Orange over the designation of the Executive Drive office park property as an “area in need of redevelopment.” The town is planning to build a new library and apartment complex at the site. Malanga won an appeal of the case in September 2020, which reversed the decision and halted the project until the council voted on the designation again earlier this year.

According to the resolution, the settlement would have necessitated the West Orange Historic Preservation Commission to designate the carriage house as a historic structure to be preserved and would have restricted use of the house to public educational and historic research purposes. No modifications would have been allowed.

Repairs to the house would be required; the settlement specified the roof being repaired and fire protection measures being taken, including a new circuit breaker, new electrical wiring and adequate lighting.

The purchase of forest property on Ridge Road was included in the settlement as well, with funding for the purchase coming from the Open Space and Recreation Commission’s budget. Malanga wanted the 12 acres to be permanent public open space for passive recreation with nothing built on it. The town would have had to apply for a conservation easement to ensure the forest would remain undeveloped.

Mayor Robert Parisi was in favor of approving the settlement, as he said at the township’s Earth Hour event on March 24.

“The council has had conversations and approved appraisals of this land. We’ve actually just requested new appraisals to be updated,” Parisi said at the time. “We anticipate speaking with council members and the public probably at the next council meeting about the idea of preserving that 12 acres of land.”

Despite the settlement agreement between Malanga and the administration, council members did not want to assume the cost of the forest area and carriage house. Councilman Bill Rutherford was concerned about a possible separate settlement between Malanga and the developer of the Executive Drive, which was also named in the lawsuit, that would not benefit the town; township attorney Richard Trenk said the town cannot compel either party to disclose a settlement.

“I’m in general supportive of preserving open space, as much of it as possible,” Rutherford said at the meeting. “To the extent that we can, we should. But I don’t think that we should do it this way, and I’m concerned about a precedent we may be setting for future developments for individuals to get involved. I don’t want to set that precedent and then every time we go through a development we have to go through a process like this.”

Council President Cindy Matute-Brown said that while she has supported purchasing the 12 acres of open space in the past, she does not want to agree to the settlement because it would provide more benefits to the residents of Ridge Road, which is a private road that the township does not maintain, than to the town at large.

“Here is a settlement agreement with benefits that, because of the structure of this, benefits residents on a private road,” Matute-Brown said at the meeting. “Why file litigation for so long and be willing to dismiss the litigation if the township, the taxpayers, if we all purchase land on a private road?”

She pointed out that, according to the settlement, no walking or lighted paths would be allowed to be built on the property, bicycles would be prohibited, and benches and tables would not be allowed, making recreation on the property difficult.

Because the settlement resolution was defeated, litigation will continue. Malanga declined to comment in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on April 18, not wanting to compromise possible future discussions of another settlement agreement.