WEST ORANGE, NJ – Several members of the public spoke before the West Orange Township Council last week to advocate for the purchase of the properties at 2 and 10 Ridge Road, which are located at the intersection of Ridge Road and Mt. Pleasant Avenue. Together, these properties make up more than 12 acres of thickly forested, undeveloped land, complete with approximately 800 trees.
Most of the residents who commented, including Susan Lenczyk, supported the purchase because the location serves as a “habitat and refuge for many species,” including deer, eagles and the endangered Indiana Bat.
Lenczyk also mentioned that in addition to providing refuge, “the trees produce large volumes of oxygen and consume large amounts of CO2, as well as provide cooling to help fight climate change.” She added that since “a significant portion” of the property lies on a steep slope, the trees also play a role in holding “the soil’s water in place” preventing mudslides.
“Any development on any portion of the property will exacerbate the deforestation on a grand scale, contribut[ing] to mudslides, reduction in air quality and climate change,” she said. “Deforestation on a small scale occurring in multiple places has the same effects, like death by 100 cuts.”
Ridge Road resident Sally Malanga added that “any development on the site, even for two-acre houses will necessitate the loss of 500 trees.”
“We have the opportunity to purchase this property,” said Lenczyk, noting that the Open Space Trust Fund could be used to purchase the property. “We have a responsibility to the local community and the global community to do our part to steward well the treasure of the planet for the common good."
Malanga also explained that this purchase would be similar to the five acres that were purchased “on the opposite side of this forest on Mt. Pleasant to hold back stormwater” as well as the purchase of “The Rock,” which includes six acres of land situated on the top of Mt. Pleasant on a “dangerous curve.”
"This additional purchase would create “a triangle of green spaces,” said Malanga. “This is what makes voters happy and secure: green spaces with numerous trees, as they are living visible examples of how much the town cares for the residents. When these 800 trees are secure and preserved, residents will drive by and know the wisdom and inspired action of our town council.”
David Yennior, a resident of Belleville and co-chair of the Sierra Club, said that buying this property will “show the residents of West Orange how committed [the township is] to the environment, especially for the children in all of our schools.”
Adding a different perspective, Morgan Bush, an L.A. transplant and a new resident of Ridge Road, added that she and her husband moved to West Orange nearly a month ago because of the “public [green] space,” which she said was lacking in L.A.
“I believe that [by] purchasing this 12-acre land, not only are you showing your continued commitment to green space and saving the environment, but [you are] also attracting young families from other towns; other cities; other states,” she said.
In response, Councilwoman Michelle Casalino noted that because she lived on “The Rock” when she was in high school, she has first-hand experience of the impact of deforestation.
“We lived there when the forest was existing on that property and we were in a panic when the bulldozers came down and took all the trees down within a very quick period of time,” she said. “Although now that property has been preserved, but at that time, the developer that bought it at the time didn’t realize that […] because it’s on a rock—we call it “The Rock” now, but it’s all built on bedrock so it wasn’t buildable [and it’s] very expensive to build upon.”
As a result, the property sat for years until being purchased by the township, but Casalino said her family home experienced flooding and displaced wildlife in the driveway.
On the state of the purchase, Casalino said she is not opposed to the purchase, but the council doesn't "have all the information, [because it] hasn’t been presented to us.”
Casalino continued that when the 139-acre Rock Spring Golf Club was presented as a potential township property, the council was given a “full presentation.”
“It was easy to make an educated decision on that because information was presented to us,” said Casalino, noting that the property also has “various challenges," including the fact that the land is private property and other challenges posed if developers wanted to come onto the property.
Casalino also mentioned that the wall surrounding the property would also have to be maintained by the township.
Councilwoman Susan McCartney also cautioned the public to think about what purchasing the property would mean to taxpayers.
“One of the lots is assessed at $479,800, and they are paying $19,051 on undeveloped land," she said. "The other lot is 6.9 acres, that’s assessed at $524,000. They’re paying taxes of $21,800. We still have a lot of questions that have not been answered because there’s also tax implications."
McCartney added that there is also not “enough funds to purchase the land [and] we need funds to maintain it.”
“I believe there’s about $940,000 in the Open Space Fund [but] you can’t just drain that out,” said Casalino. “You can’t just take a bond and say let’s pay for the rest of it with a bond.”
Chief Financial Officer John Gross mentioned that the council members need to decide whether they want to move forward with the purchase, stating that a combination of reserved funds and borrowing would be required to acquire the property.
Councilman Joe Krakoviak, who is also the council liaison to the Open Space Committee, shared his frustration with his colleagues, commenting on the “slow walking” and the lack of transparency that they were showing.
“I’ve been advocating for the purchase of this property,” he said, stating that it has been three years since the Open Space Committee recommended “starting a process to acquire these properties.”
“I am all in favor of spending every last penny of the Open Space Trust Fund to acquire open space,” said Krakoviak, who was applauded by members of the public.
He implored his fellow council members to authorize the vote on the property so that the administration “can do its due diligence” and get back to the governing body.
“This is what we have done [for] multiple open space acquisitions,” he said. “In the 10 years that I’ve been on the council we have the authorization vote."
Assistant West Orange Township Attorney Kenneth Kayser said he was “not aware of any land acquisition that was initiated by the council," but that he does not see "any reason why the council can’t initiate one."
Council President Jerry Guarino pushed back against Krakoviak’s comments, stating that a plan is needed before the township can move forward with the purchase of the property.
“How is it going to be accessible?" he asked. "Can people walk through it? What will we have to do to make it able to safely walk through the property. We’ll get the information and we’ll move forward."
Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown proposed that the council "make a commitment to having a working session to discuss this” and concluded that the council is "interested in supporting the acquisition but would like more answers.”