TC approves hiring of planning firm for Essex Green project

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
The West Orange Township Council meets June 12.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council approved a resolution with a 4-1 vote at its June 12 meeting to hire Heyer, Gruel and Associates, a Red Bank-based planning and consulting firm, to prepare and present a redevelopment plan for the Essex Green and Executive Drive property, which was deemed an “area in need of redevelopment” by the West Orange Planning Board in December 2017 and by the council in January 2018.

On June 12, Councilman Joe Krakoviak was the lone council member to vote against the resolution. The township in currently involved in litigation as to whether the property should have received the designation; resident Kevin Malanga filed suit against the town on Feb. 14, hoping the court will overturn the town’s decision.

The approved resolution designates a new planner, replacing Paul Grygiel, the planner who wrote the initial study on the property in October 2017. According to Mayor Robert Parisi, the township administration recommended a new planner based on feedback from the public.

“As we were preparing for the next phase of this redevelopment project and hearing some concerns about who the planner was, and as we get to the point where we’re going to start with an actual plan, we thought this was appropriate,” Parisi said at the meeting. “Clearly, as we went through that process there were a number of people that indicated that it might be better to have someone else, and as we’re getting ready to go to this next phase this is the administration’s recommendation.”

For several months, many residents have been questioning Grygiel’s conclusion that Essex Green and Executive Drive are areas in need of redevelopment and have been asking for a new planner to come in.

Parisi said the town has previously worked with Heyer, Gruel and Associates, and the administration believes the firm is a good fit due to its familiarity with West Orange. Kenneth Kayser, the assistant township attorney, said at the meeting that the firm had worked with West Orange on the town’s original redevelopment plan 20 years ago, as well as on affordable housing litigation.

At the meeting Krakoviak and Jack Sayers, the business administrator, debated the switch, with Krakoviak citing the Sept. 19, 2017, meeting at which the council majority approved a resolution for Grygiel to prepare a study and move forward with a plan for Essex Green.

The 2017 resolution “authorizes the retention of Phillips Preiss Grygiel, LLC to prepare a report to examine whether the designated study area within the Essex Green and Executive Drive area constitutes an area in need of redevelopment consistent with the Municipal Land Use Law and to prepare a redevelopment plan in the event that the Planning Board determines that the study area does constitute an area in need of redevelopment.”

“We’ve already spent $7,000 on a plan,” Krakoviak said at the meeting. “Mr. Grygiel has billed the town for $7,000 at the same time he was working on the study and it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Looking at invoices from Grygiel’s study in September, Sayers said, “It doesn’t say he was doing a plan, it says he was reviewing relevant plans and it was done after this was approved. Once this was approved, if you recall, all we heard about was how nobody wanted Mr. Grygiel to do any of this work. So now we’re going out to get an independent person to do the work — and you want Mr. Grygiel to come back and do the work.”

Parisi again said that the administration believes Grygiel did a good job on the property study, but wants to go in another direction with the plan.

“Now as we’re getting to the next level of this process, the administration believes that we want to go in this direction,” he said. “We believe Mr. Grygiel was the appropriate person to do the study, and for the actual plan we’d like to go with this firm.”

Council President Susan McCartney asked if the council could move forward with the resolution before voting, because the town is still in litigation regarding Essex Green. Kayser said the resolution and litigation have nothing to do with each other so the council could vote as planned.