Resident sues township over Essex Green designation

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Resident Kevin Malanga filed a lawsuit against the township of West Orange, the Township Council and the Planning Board on Feb. 14 in Essex County Superior Court, saying that the decision to designate the Essex Green and Executive Drive properties as an “area in need of redevelopment” was “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious.”

The council voted to designate the property as an area in need of redevelopment at its Jan. 9 meeting, after the Planning Board voted in favor of the recommendation to put it in front of the council at its Dec. 6, 2017, meeting.

The chief complaint in Malanga’s lawsuit argues that the property, which covers nearly 75 acres near the center of West Orange, does not qualify as an area in need of redevelopment because it is not “blighted” as the state local redevelopment law requires. The property was bought by Clarion Partners in March 2016 for $97 million.

“This does not qualify as an area in need of redevelopment,” Malanga said in a March 8 phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle. “It was made solely to let the town build what it wants without having to go through (company bids).”

At several Planning Board and Township Council meetings, Malanga criticized the township for this decision; he has stated multiple times that he fears the township made this designation in order to provide Clarion Partners with a Payment in Lieu of Taxes abatement.

As a result of this suit, Malanga is hoping the courts will reverse the decision to designate the properties as an area in need of redevelopment, reversing what he sees as a biased and illegal move.

“I’m looking to have the decision reversed, and let them (Clarion Partners) spend their own money without tax abatements,” he said. “Put their own money toward renovating and upgrading.”

The lawsuit alleges that the Planning Board’s decision was not based on substantial evidence, that neither the Planning Board nor council understood the redevelopment law and that Township Council members — with the exception of Council President Susan McCartney, who is the council’s liaison to the Planning Board — should have been allowed to participate in the Planning Board hearings. While council members were not barred from participating, they had been advised by the administration not to participate.

Malanga’s lawsuit also argues that two members of the Planning Board should have recused themselves from voting on the recommendation. It alleges that McCartney should not have voted because she had previously voiced her support for the project, and that Planning Board member Andrew Trenk should have recused himself because he is the son of West Orange Township Attorney Richard Trenk.

Richard Trenk addressed both claims in an email to the Chronicle on March 12.

“That allegation is completely contrary to the applicable law,” he said. “A councilperson is required to sit on the Planning Board and the mayor may designate anyone he desires, including himself, to serve on the Planning Board.”

Andrew Trenk is the mayor’s designee to the Planning Board.

To be designated as an area in need of redevelopment, the property was surveyed by town planner Paul Grygiel and his firm, Phillips Preiss Grygiel, LLC, Planning & Real Estate Consultants, which is contracted by the town. The report determined that the property qualified as a non-condemned area in need of development, and was presented to the Planning Board. Grygiel did not use the word “blight” anywhere in the report, nor did Planning Board members use the word in conjunction with the properties.

Malanga said that the town’s decision to designate the area as a non-condemned area in need of redevelopment as opposed to a condemned area in need of redevelopment did not impact his decision to file the lawsuit against the town. He also believes that the lack of the word “blight” in the report was intentional.

“It’s irrelevant to the situation,” he said. “I don’t see how it could qualify as an area in need of redevelopment. If it had been honestly evaluated, they would have to say it’s not blighted. It would cause the Planning Board to say it’s not blighted, it’s not a crime area. So they don’t want to use that word.”

West Orange is currently looking to move its Department of Public Works headquarters, and one possible site is the Essex Green property. Malanga is not opposed to the move, but does not want it to be part of the possible redevelopment deal.

“I’m not opposed to the DPW moving there but, if a new building has to be built, do it by public bidding,” Malanga said.

According to Richard Trenk, the township and Planning Board can also move forward with looking for a new location for the Department of Public Works. There is currently no timeline set for the lawsuit being resolved. The Planning Board is also free to continue to develop a plan for redevelopment even while the lawsuit continues, Richard Trenk said.

“The court will review the Township Council’s decision and Planning Board recommendation to determine if the requisite proofs support the decision,” Richard Trenk said in a March 12 email to the Chronicle. “There is no stay, so the Planning Board may proceed with beginning to develop the proposed redevelopment plan.”

Council President Susan McCartney and Councilwoman Michelle Casalino declined to comment, citing their being named in the lawsuit as the reason they cannot discuss the details. Councilman Jerry Guarino and Councilman Victor Cirilo did not return a request for comment.

Councilman Joe Krakoviak declined to comment on the lawsuit as well, but echoed his position on the Essex Green redevelopment in an email to the Chronicle on March 12.

“I reiterate my considered judgment that this project is not the right direction for the mayor and the rest of the Town Council to take our community,” Krakoviak said. “I believe the redevelopment area does not even come close to meeting either the intent or the qualifying standards of the law. Does anyone honestly believe Essex Green and Executive Drive are blighted, as the law requires?”

Malanga’s attorney, Anthony P. Alfano, did not return requests for comment.

“This type of abuse is detrimental to the taxpayers,” Malanga said. “And it’s time for it to end.”