WEST ORANGE, NJ — After moving to authorize Mayor Robert Parisi to perform due diligence in investigating the possible acquisition of the Ridge Road properties, the township council announced on that the mayor is opposed to acquiring the more than 12-acre plot of land.
Although several members of the public, including some Ridge Road residents, advocated for the purchase of 2 and 10 Ridge Road for the sake of preservation and use as public space, members of the council had more questions than answers for what acquiring the land would mean for the township. The discussion continued over the course of several meetings, one of which included a presentation by Municipal Engineer Len Lepore and Township Forester John Linson.
At the most recent meeting, West Orange Open Space and Recreation Commission member Susan Lenczyk once again addressed concerns that the council had previously expressed. She reiterated that “it’s essential that the entire parcel will be preserved” so that the land will remain undeveloped and undisturbed for the benefit of the environment and for the wildlife that currently call the forest home.
In response to council’s questions about visitors having public access on a private road, Lenczyk said that she believes Ridge Road residents “own not only their own properties, but up to the central line of the road in front of the road in front of their property.” She added that “if the township purchases the forest, West Orange will would own half of the road in front of the forest,” which would essentially publicize a portion of the private road without disturbing private property owners.
“There was also some mention that it might be necessary to move one of the stone pillars at the entrance of Ridge Road,” said Lenczyk, referencing the historic wall surrounding Ridge road and bordering Mt. Pleasant Avenue. “If the forest is preserved for passive use only—adding walking paths—it does not seem likely that will become a sort of destination that would attract so many crowds and so much traffic that road widening or removal of a pillar would be necessary.”
Lenczyk also referenced Council President Jerry Guarino’s concern about access to a possible walking path or hiking trail and space for parking, which would have warranted the widening of the opening onto Ridge Road.
“It was noted that some of the trees near the wall might have to be removed to prevent damage to the wall,” she said. “There was some concern that removal would release more runoff,” which she added would be exacerbated if anyone were to develop the site.
Lenczyk suggested that the township “could easily plant native herbaceous plants to hold the soil in place, plant some trees or let the forest itself fill in the gaps left by the removed trees.”
She also touched on another issue that Councilwoman Susan McCartney brought up at previous meetings, which is the loss of $41,462 in tax revenue if the property became public space.
“I don’t deny that this is a valid concern, but please remember that you cannot put a price on the environmental benefits provided by the forest,” said Lenczyk. “How do you price clean air? How do you price cool temperatures in increasing hot climate? How do you price soil control and runoff control?
“There are some challenges associated with the property, but we can over those challenges. Maybe we ought to start thinking of this forest not as a piece of real estate, but rather as part of the commonwealth of this township. It is a treasure that must be held in common by all the citizens in West Orange.”
In response, McCartney said that she did not foresee a “public potential” for the Ridge Road properties.
“I don’t see it as a priority right now for the taxpayers,” she said, elaborating on how purchasing the properties or bonding would be “an additional tax burden” to West Orange residents.
Guarino said that although he knew that Ridge Road is a private road with issues, there are “so many other open space areas that need to be addressed.” In response to residents who wanted the land to remain passive, he also added that according to Green Acres law, land must be “used for preservation and recreation.”
“The key word is ‘and,’ not one or the other; it’s both,” he said.
“The mayor is opposed to acquiring the Ridge Road properties for a whole host of reasons, most of which I think we’ve discussed in the last two or three meetings,” said Councilman Joe Krakoviak, who noted that because of the township’s form of government under the Faulkner Act, also known as the Optional Municipal Charter Act, “there’s essentially nothing we can do” to change the mayor’s position. “[Even] if everybody on the council wanted to do this (purchase the properties), there’s still nothing that we can do about it.”
Township Attorney Kenneth Kayser added that the council has expressed its intentions to the mayor with respect to this issue, and the mayor feels “that it’s not the right time to do this.”
In other news, the council also unanimously voted against a resolution to award a $88,000 contract to Power with Prestige, Inc. to work on an exterior lighting project for the municipal building.
Chief Financial Officer John Gross explained that the project would “provide additional lighting to the front of town hall to be used in a celebratory manner for community celebration.” He added that it would be similar to the type of lighting displays seen on the Empire State Building in New York.
“It’s a way to bring focus and bring the community together around something that could be inspiring and certainly beautiful and interesting,” he said.
Although all council members thought that festive lighting would be nice to have in town, the $88,000 price tag was a deal breaker. The council members noted that this money would be better used to update facilities around town, including the bathrooms in four out of the five fire stations in West Orange and the sound system within town hall.
“I understand that there is enough money in the budget to cover the fire station bathrooms and some of the rooms,” said Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown. “[But] we are living in an antiquated system when we walk in here (town hall) and can’t hear the speaker system over the air conditioner and can’t pull down the screen automatically with a PowerPoint presentation without all this cumbersome equipment here, but we don’t have the money for that. I think we need to look at what has to happen in here so we can be more productive.”
After listening to West Orange Police Department (WOPD) Communications Operator Chris Babinski, who advocated for a fair contract for the WOPD—including those who work as 911 dispatchers so that they can live above the federal poverty level—Matute-Brown said she was taken aback at the thought of spending $88,000 for lighting, and she voted with a “hard no.”
“You’ve actually seen a couple of examples of our charter in action tonight,” Krakoviak said to the public. “First, the mayor saying, ‘No, I’m not going to move on regional properties’—and under our charter, that’s his prerogative, [there’s] really nothing we can do about it.
“On the other hand, we as a council are authorized to review all contracts and also to a great extent do the budgeting [and] you saw tonight we didn’t think—for, I guess, a variety of reasons—that they needed $88,000 worth of LED lights that was proposed by the mayor. It was not something we wanted to approve and so we turned it down.”