NEWARK, NJ - A planning advocacy group that previously sued the city over a zoning ordinance that would have increased allowable building height in the Ironbound is still unhappy with how the measure is moving forward.

The council is seeking to recreate the so-called MX-3 zone after a Superior Court judge last month overturned the ordinance when PLANewark filed suit. That’s why city council today referred to the planning board a draft of a new MX-3 ordinance, which would increase a building’s height from 8 stories -- or about 96 feet -- to about 12 stories -- or 145 feet.

One of the main concerns in the group’s lawsuit dealt with transparency and how the city informed residents about public meetings where the changes were to be discussed and approved. Several protests took place the first time the MX-3 ordinance went through the approval process. 

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PLANewark spokesman James Powell today told TAPinto Newark at the meeting that he didn’t have enough time to look at the version that had just been voted on.

"Why does this seem like - despite reassurances to do it better next time - an exact repeat of the earlier bungled process?" PLANewark asked in a statement after the meeting. "Perhaps most importantly, the City has not provided a meaningful answer to the question of what is actually driving the end-of-year rush – who is actually benefiting from this artificial deadline, and why is the minor request from the residents for several weeks extra time for meetings being ignored – where’s the real harm?"

The group, in its statement, had a litany of concerns. For example, PLANewark claimed a community input meeting that occurred before today's vote wasn't advertised well enough by the city. It also had other concerns about how setback requirements in the new ordinance might create less human-friendly streets and longer shadows. 

This is the second time the ordinance went before city council since the judge made the zone null, putting the fate of a project approved under MX-3 on McWhorter Street in jeopardy.

Council members were earlier asked to vote on the ordinance Nov. 8, but it was deferred at that time because they wanted more time to review it. That version had been moved on the floor for a vote and did not appear on an agenda before the meeting started.

At that meeting, Newark Corporation Counsel Kenyatta Stewart told the council that a developer would be required to hold a community meeting with residents about certain features of a building in the MX-3 zone. However, that was not written in the ordinance that was up for a vote on Nov. 8.

The draft version that today was referred to the planning board for review does not include that provision either. It does, however, makes a minor fix that limits a building’s height to just 145 feet high, rather than 20 stories in the Nov. 8 version. 

There were two measures related to MX-3 on today’s agenda: One was a resolution to send the ordinance to the planning board for review, and the other was the actual draft ordinance. The resolution was adopted today with amendments that were made on the floor. It wasn’t immediately clear what amendments were made to the resolution.

Councilman Carlos Gonzalez asked if most of the amendments dealt with “definitions.” Gonzalez said he supposed those were the "major changes" that were being made, as well as the permitted use for what was allowed in the MX-3 zone. However, most of those items only appear in the ordinance.

Stewart, the city’s corporation counsel, said the major thing that was changing was the building’s height.

“The key factor, as far as the changes, is that you cannot go any higher than 145 feet,” Stewart said. “Anything after that has to have a variance, so we're not allowing that in the MX-3 zone at all.”

The MX-3 zone lies just east of Penn Station, in Councilman Augusto Amador’s East Ward. Today, he praised the city administration for handling the ordinance in the “right way.”

“I don't have any problem with the resolution or the ordinance,” Amador said before voting. “I actually would like to congratulate the administration because this time we're doing it the right way. If you read the decision made by the courts that went against us -- went against the city -- the decision was based on process, mostly. And I think we learned our lesson and we're doing it the right way this time. ”

However, Amador had some concerns over how quickly the ordinance should come back to the council on second and final reading after the planning board reviews it. Ultimately, the council voted to advance today’s ordinance on first reading, so it will come back for a final vote on Dec. 11. If it had only been advanced, the final vote would have occurred on Dec. 19. 

"We've actually handled some of this before,” explained Stewart, the corporation counsel. “But more importantly, I think that we've already started the communication with the community very early as opposed to the last time. I don't think there was as much of a dialogue. I think the advancement won't do anything negative.”

Amador is also a planning board member, so he cannot speak for or against the ordinance. Corporation counsel today advised him not to attend any community meetings, where he may be asked for his position.

The city plans to hold a total of three community input meetings about the ordinance before it’s fully approved. The first one occurred last night and the next one will take place tomorrow at Ironbound Early Learning Center at 1 Newark Ave. The third one is slated for Dec. 6, but a time and location has not yet been set. 

The draft ordinance will be reviewed by the planning board on Dec. 3, corporation counsel said.

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