Government

Verona Town Council Approves Purchase of Grove Avenue Synagogue Property

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VERONA,NJ - The Verona Town Council adopted an ordinance at the latest council meeting to acquire a property in town, and although the vote was unanimous among the council members, the public had some concerns.

Township Manager Matthew Cavallo presented the possible acquisition at the Monday, May 1 council meeting. The property – located at 56 Grove Ave. – currently belongs to Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex and sits on the corner of Grove Avenue and Personette Street.

Cavallo listed three possible options for this particular ordinance. The first was to use the property for the relocation of the rescue squad. The second was to purchase the property and turn it into three single-family homes, returning it back to the tax role and ridding the area of the parking problem it currently has. The third was to not enter the sale and leave it up to chance as to what it will be turned into.

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“My idea to purchase the land for use by the Verona Rescue Squad was intended to help preserve the neighborhood and the town as a whole,” Cavallo said. “I believe this is the next best option for the township.”

The idea for a new rescue squad facility came about in 2016 when the council discussed the current condition of fire station number two. That discussion prompted the township to look at the condition of the rescue squad and decide that the facility no longer meets the town’s needs.

In February, Cavallo was made aware of a property listed for sale and contacted the realtor expressing interest. Cavallo, as well as other township officials, did a walkthrough of the property and presented the idea to the town council on March 20 in an executive session. The consensus was to proceed with the process and so on March 21 Cavallo made an offer of $850,000 -- $150,000 below the asking price. The offer was countered and a price of $900,000 was agreed on. Although a purchase agreement was drafted, it has not been executed yet.

Two ordinances were presented at Monday’s meeting – one to authorize the acquisition of the property and the second for the bond ordinance to acquire the property.

Many members of the public expressed concern over the possibility of the rescue squad relocating to that corner. The concerns included the debt that the town would incur, the safety of the children at the nearby school and a decrease in property value of the surrounding homes.

Resident and town council candidate Ted Giblin addressed the council and presented his concerns over the possible debt the town would incur with this purchase.

“We know that a project of this magnitude will be costly and as a town we must carefully consider the issuance of bonds, which adds to our long-term debt,” Giblin said.

Giblin added that the first reading of the ordinance at the April 17 meeting did not provide the public with enough information regarding the usage of the property. He noted that he met with both Cavallo and Township Chief Financial Officer Matthew Laracy and through his meetings, learned that the total cost of a new rescue squad – including renovations and interest –would be roughly $3.8 million. Even with that number, the town still would not have a new firehouse, Giblin said.

Resident Will Battersby brought up the safety of the children in town as another issue.

“As a neighbor of that piece of land, I do just want to point out – and the father of an elementary school kid – Grove and Fairview are perennial speeding problems in this town,” Battersby said, adding that because first responders do not like speed bumps, which was noted earlier in the meeting, speed bumps could not be added to this area if the rescue squad was to move there. “What we’re essentially saying is we can’t fix the problem of speeding on Grove.”

Two blocks away from the proposed site is an elementary school, Battersby noted, and having emergency vehicles that close to a school could potentially put the children’s lives in danger.

“With this proposal, what we’re essentially saying is we care more about fixing this problem and making the puzzle fit together than we do about the safety of these kids,” Battersby said.

Although Battersby agreed that the rescue squad does need a new facility, he said this particular property is not the right place for it.

Another resident who agreed that this is not the right place is Tom Bastanza, who lives directly across the street from the current synagogue. Bastanza said the synagogue has been amazing to have as a neighbor and is sad to see it go. Although he does not think the traffic caused by the rescue squad would be a huge concern, he worries that the property value of his own house and other houses in the area would be greatly affected.

“Frankly, the impact on property value I have grave concerns about,” Bastanza said, after noting his extreme admiration for the rescue squad and the work that they do.

Brett Tempesta, an 11-year member of the rescue squad, took offense to the notion that the rescue squad would put the lives of others in danger and said the rescue squad members are highly trained in what they do.

“We do not drive quickly and we do take due regard for the law,” Tempesta said. “My drivers are exceptionally well-trained.”

Although many residents opposed the passing of the ordinance, several residents supported it and said that there is no guarantee it will become the new location for the rescue squad. Regardless of what the property could become, residents Jessica Pearson and Al DeOld both said they would rather the township have control over it than a developer. All of the council members agreed that controlling the outcome would be in the best interest of the township and its residents.

“We’re not saying it has to be a rescue squad but once the town controls it, we can steer it, we can direct what is going to go there,” Deputy Mayor Michael Nochimson said. “If we control it, we control the destiny of that property.”

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