WEST ORANGE, NJ – With many new, young families moving to West Orange, and many more expected with the completion of the Edison Village and the building of affordable housing units in the coming years, managing growth in the best possible way came to the fore at the West Orange Township Council Meeting on Tuesday.

During public comment, issues concerning growth as it impacts the quality of life in West Orange came up in various ways, including comments about overcrowding in schools and lack of resources, traffic concerns, fire safety and preserving the township’s open-nature areas.

Several residents of the West Essex Highlands spoke to the council about their concerns if the proposed new housing units are built on the site. Rita Yohalem said that building up to 700 new housing units on 75 acres of buildable land is too much, especially with only one road leading in and out of the complex.

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“We had a fire two years ago in the complex, which was handled well by the fire department,” she said. “But what would happen if one of the new multi-level buildings went up in flames? Can the fire engines get in and out in time with only one main road?”

Susan Brint said that the streets near the West Essex Highlands are not built to handle that much traffic. She expressed concern that the traffic light that would need to be added on Oval Road and Eagle Rock Avenue would be too close to the one at the Laurel Road intersection.

“There would be only about a one-tenth mile distance between the two lights, which may be too close to be feasible,” she said.

Richard Trenk, a lawyer for the township, said the traffic signal would be on a county road and that it would be up to the county to decide how best to deal with the traffic flow on this road. The developer, Garden Homes, would have to pay for the light, he said.

Trenk added that the fire department will be consulted on the best way to safeguard the complex, and that its trucks will be able to use roads that are only used for emergency access.

Pending legal actions, Garden Homes would be the developer for the affordable housing units it wants to build in the Highlands in return for being able to build luxury homes there. It is currently in mediation with the Township of West Orange and the Fair Share Housing Center regarding this issue.  

Shirley Bishop, the township council’s adviser on the Fair Share Housing Center’s legal actions to create more affordable housing units in West Orange, explained that every municipality in New Jersey must provide low-cost-and moderate-priced housing. She said that as of now, West Orange is responsible for building 953 affordable housing units, which she called “unrealistic.”

She added that the township is asking the Fair Share Housing Center to adjust the number of affordable housing units that will be required of West Orange.

“After this process is settled, we will have a period of repose until 2025,” she said.

On another issue concerning growth, the council voted in favor of a resolution approving the financial agreement between the township and Valley Road Residential Urban Renewal, LLC, pursuant to the long-term tax exemption law.

The approval of this resolution will allow the Alpert Group’s Harvard Press Redevelopment Project to proceed on the West Orange side.

If the council accepts the Alpert Group’s plan, 100 housing units (40 of which would be affordable housing units) would be built on the old Selecto-Flush building site at 18 Central Avenue. Getting the 30-year tax exemption to build in this redevelopment zone is critical to the project’s success, according to Joe Alpert, who spoke about its importance to the council.

“It is important to get this project going, especially with threated Federal government cutbacks in the affordable housing area,” said councilman Victor Cirilo.

Council President Joe Krakoviak pointed out that these large redevelopment projects, including the Edison Village, all come with long-term tax-exempt status. He said this was an issue of growing concern, especially with West Orange public schools currently facing financial challenges.

“Along with bring new kids to our schools, these long-term, tax-exempt developments don’t give any dollars to our public schools for 30 years,” said Krakoviak, who added that this has been a long-time issue of concern to him.  

On the positive side of growth and renewal, Gerald Sweeney, president of the Friends of West Orange Library, thanked the council members for their support in helping to upgrade the library’s façade and interior.

“Our library’s new façade had made it look like a new building,” said Sweeney, adding the building’s interior improvements will soon be completed.

In other news, it was also announced at the meeting that two new businesses will be opening on Main Street this spring: a sushi restaurant at 435 Main St., and a new coffee shop and bakery called “Willow & Olivia” at 255 Main St.

The next township council meeting is on April 4.