A lawsuit was filed against the township of West Orange over a controversial redevelopment plan involving the Executive Drive Office Park.
For many, these recent legal proceedings are inspiring bouts of déjà vu. The township lost a case only last year involving the same office park, a state appellate court finding that the 70s-era buildings didn’t currently meet the standard of “blight,” and was therefore ineligible for redevelopment designation, which is necessary for a developer to receive a tax abatement.
Days after the decision, Mayor Rob Parisi went to bat again for the project, drafting a nearly identical proposal that would include over 400 residential units and a new home for the West Orange Public Library.
This lawsuit does little to inspire faith in a governing body that some believe is having a crisis. Residents routinely harp on the council’s lack of transparency for such reasons as not allowing the public to question expert witnesses, as Jersey Digs reported.
There have also been last-minute changes to agendas that many believe is contributing to low public turnout for the most controversial proposals.
For instance, Mayor Rob Parisi’s long-awaited presentation on key components of the Executive Drive redevelopment plan was originally scheduled for March but was moved up a week ahead of schedule without any significant public announcement.
Despite the importance of Parisi’s announcement — including the news that his plan would grant the developer a 30-year tax abatement, as it did in the previous proposal — it was reported that at one time only 16 viewers were watching the virtual meeting.
Robert Trenk, township attorney, attempted to lay to rest some of the theories about the schedule change, explaining that the township received an eleventh-hour warning that there was a March 1 deadline for a multimillion-dollar grant that would fund a new public library, which is part of the redevelopment plan.
In order to remain eligible for the Library Construction Bond Act grant, Trenk said, the council needed to pass a resolution naming the developer — BNE Real Estate Group — and showing the redevelopment plan.
Meanwhile, Councilman Bill Rutherford continues to be the lone voice of opposition to the plan. Rutherford estimated that without a tax abatement, a similar development at the Executive Drive site could earn the town $5 million in taxes in one year, five times more than the town would earn with a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes.
But government officials attacked Rutherford’s projection as misleading: A similar project, they claim, wouldn’t be possible without a tax abatement.
“With the cost of doing business in Essex County, particularly in this suburban area of West Orange, South Orange, Maplewood, you’re not going to build without a PILOT — it’s not going to happen,” said John Gross, the town’s chief financial officer.
Michael Hanley, a town-hired financial consultant, called Rutherford’s scenario of a redevelopment plan without a tax abatement a “fantasy” that could never happen because there would “be no return on the investment” for the developer.
Other council members believe the perks of the redevelopment plan, which includes the $3.1 million grant, justify any shortcomings with the project.
“I have not heard one resident in opposition to this proposal be willing to donate the $3.1 million that the library would potentially lose,” said Councilwoman Tammy Williams, who voted last year in favor of the Executive Drive redevelopment plan as a planning board member.
“To that end, I just ask residents to put your money where your argument is,” Williams continued.