REBUILDING SHU: University Officials Say South Orange Zoning Restrictions a Challenge for Campus Projects

The cross atop Walsh Library is at the maximum height for buildings allowed under South Orange zoning. Credits: Francis A. Raso
South Orange zoning regulations limit how many stories can be built. As a result, Seton Hall has no high-rise residence halls. Credits: Francis A. Raso

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – Operating within the strict zoning constraints of the village of South Orange may prove to be the toughest challenge facing Seton Hall University’s plans to rebuild its campus. 

The university has submitted five separate applications for campus rebuilding projects in just the past year, each one representing a major technical and regulatory challenge for the South Orange Village Planning Board, which has to review all plans.

  • REBUILDING SHU: Part 8 of 11. Seton Hall University embarks on the biggest campus renovation in a generation, hoping to make life better for students without making life worse for residents of South Orange. Read Part 7: History.

It is a titanic job for the members of the board, who serve part time while holding down other jobs. During their April 10 meeting, when Seton Hall officials again were presenting plans for rebuilding projects, members expressed their growing frustration with the university’s inability to produce a definitive master plan that includes all the new construction.

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The university has had to shuffle its priorities several times as it tries to balance the availability of funding from the state with its own budgeting, as well as meeting the changing needs of its large and growing student body.  

However, the Planning Board’s patience seemed to run out. “I don’t understand why we are hearing this plan piecemeal,” said board member Michael Miller, who expressed the frustration of other members of the board. 

Beyond coordinating the presentation of plans for what is shaping up as the largest campus renovation in a generation, the university also has to try to comply as much as possible with zoning in South Orange, which is a predominately suburban residential village.

Individually, many of Seton Hall’s projects comply with basic planning and zoning requirements. But the projects can still conflict with one another. 

John Signorello, associate vice president of facilities and operations at Seton Hall, said the university does its best to satisfy zoning requirements regarding building height and setbacks.  But as the campus grows, new challenges arise.

“It becomes increasingly difficult when we’re on such a tight campus,” Signorello said. 

What might seem at first like a matter of individual taste, the location of a building, as well as its size, is strictly regulated by local zoning requirements. A building’s “setback” is its distance, measured in feet, from the property line, said Salvatore Renda, South Orange Village engineer and zoning official.  A property line is the boundary between two distinct properties. 

Any building in South Orange’s University Zone—essentially Seton Hall’s campus—can be constructed so that it is 30 feet high.  Each project is granted an additional 18 inches for every foot of building setback, for a maximum of 75 feet, according to Chapter 92 of the South Orange Village code. 

The crucifix atop Seton Hall’s Walsh Library signifies the absolute maximum height for any building on campus, university archivist Alan B. Delozier said. 

One exception to the rule involves “Special District A,” an area within the university zone that runs parallel to homes along South Orange Avenue and Centre Street. This zone includes buildings such as Newman and Cabrini halls, and enforces lower height restrictions on buildings, Signorello said. 

Lot coverage, another zoning term, can best be described as the percentage of a particular zone that—from an aerial view—is covered with buildings.  The village code allows the university zone maximum lot coverage of 30 percent.  Currently, building coverage accounts for approximately 24 percent (14 acres) of campus land, leaving the remaining space open for scenery, parking, and circulation, Signorello said. 

Renda said that proposed projects that conform to allowable zoning are presented to the Planning Board, whereas potentially problematic projects that don’t quite meet current zoning, are presented to the Zoning Board, or the Board of Adjustment. University representatives must stand before the appropriate board with its engineers, architects, designers and planners to provide justifications for any variances they may request. 

Signorello said the university does its best to avoid asking for variances, but sometimes the process cannot be avoided. The university’s request to purchase off-campus property in a residential zone on South Orange Avenue and Centre Street and convert it into an ROTC office building is one example of a project that was denied because it would have exceeded building height restrictions. 

After the appropriate local board has given citizens an opportunity to voice their concerns, the members rule in one of three ways:  approval, approval with necessary revisions, or denial. 

While public universities are not required to adhere to local zoning constraints, privately funded institutions such as Seton Hall cannot build without local approval. A bill currently making its way through the state Legislature, if passed, would exempt private colleges from obtaining such approvals from municipal government and grant them the same privileges given to public colleges under the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law. 

The bill (S-1534/A-2586) says the delays stemming from the approval processes result in “the delay of important educational programs and facilities for students” and the “diversion of critical funding away from educational purposes.”

The bill’s opponents say residents living in the areas surrounding private institutions deserve a say in any developments that may impact their communities. The university’s proposal for a new university center, for instance, has led some local residents to sign a petition opposing the project, due to concerns that the plan’s service roads will interfere with traffic flow on South Orange Avenue. 

This series was reported and written by the Advanced Reporting class at Seton Hall University. This article was written by Francis A. Raso, a May 2013 graduate.

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