By Ron Leir
NORTH ARLINGTON –
About two years ago, the borough’s zoning and planning boards greenlighted a proposal to redevelop the Ridge Lumber property at Ridge Road and Front Street as a mixed-use site with a hardware store on ground level and 13 condominium apartments above.
But the project never materialized and the owner of the former lumber business – which has been inactive for the past six years – has yet to pay $8,900 in property taxes for 2012, according to municipal tax records.
Now one member of the governing body is pushing the borough to do something to turn an existing “Ridge Road eyesore” into a productive use, possibly in concert with the Board of Education.
Whether anything will come of his call to action remains to be seen, however.
Councilman Joseph Bianchi, who raised the issue during the public portion of the Sept. 13 council meeting, said that unless a developer shows up to build apartments or senior citizen housing, “the next best thing is for a school for special needs children.”
“Sending our special needs children to other schools is extremely expensive for the taxpayer,” Bianchi said, “so having a facility that could bring children into North Arlington so it could be a money-making proposition (from tuition payments), and having it right across from the high school, a three- tofour- story building with elevators and a cafeteria, with landscaping and a place for buses to drop off and pick up the children, I think it would be a win-win situation.”
Since the cost for such a facility would probably be “in the millions,” Bianchi said, “we’d need (financial) help from the state. I think they’d be inclined to chip in.”
The borough Board of Education (BOE) is interested – but, apparently, only if the municipality takes the first step.
“If our Borough moves to build a new building on the Ridge Lumber location,” said Schools Superintendent. Oliver Stringham, “we have shared that we would have interest in discussing use of part of this building as one of our BOE goals continues to be to find other ways to bring district special needs children back to the district. This would enable us to educate students in our own community, eliminating long bus rides while also reducing and/or eliminating costly private placements and busing costs – a win-win for everyone.”
And, Stringham notes, if space in the proposed new building allowed for additional classrooms, “we would also welcome filling them with out-of-district tuition students – creating another revenue source to assist our overall academic program.” Relocating BOE administrative offices to any excess space would be another potential boon, he said.
If the borough did acquire the property, Borough Administrator Terence Wall said that possible municipal uses could include a first aid station or recreation facility.
But Mayor Peter Massa said that as far as he’s concerned, the borough “has no interest in buying that property for borough use. We’re not going to put any borough offices there. And if any proposal does come forward (to acquire the property), it’s going to have public input – we’ll hold public hearings – because it’s going to require a major expenditure.”
The Board of Education, Massa said, “wants the borough to lay out purchase and construction costs. We don’t have money in the treasury to do that. It would have to be bonded. … They (the BOE) should do it on their own. They should put their money where their mouth is. Show me the money!”
Councilman Steve Tanelli said the school board “should definitely move” on a plan to accept out-ofdistrict special needs students, along with children from the borough. “Other towns have done it,” he said. But, he added, “it seems that the board is always waiting on the borough to do something.”
“It’s not bad to be creative and solve multiple problems to get rid of an eyesore,” Tanelli added, “but someone owns that building. I’d want to know if there’s been any dialogue between the board and the owner. I’m one of the council liaisons to the board and it hasn’t been discussed with me.”
Asked about these concerns, Bianchi said: “There’s going to be a joint meeting of the board and the mayor and council to discuss certain things the board would like to do, and if it can’t be done with the (Ridge Lumber site), then maybe another property. We will put numbers on the table. Nothing can be done until we have the finances to do it.”
But there is plenty of justification to do something, Bianchi said. “That area is blighted, in need of repair and the owner lives a great distance away. It’s a disgrace we have to put up with situation like this.”
Because there is still a private owner of record – 235- 241 Ridge Road LLC – for the lumber property, the options open to the borough are limited, according to Borough Attorney Randy Pearce.
“That’s why the property hasn’t been condemned or subjected to eminent domain,” Pearce said.
And while the property may be “blighted and an eyesore,” Pearce said the fact that the owner has received borough approvals to redevelop the site “could require us to give (the owner) value for the property and for us to find that value puts a burden on the taxpayer.”
The property – listed on the tax rolls as two lots comprising more than 10,000 square feet – is assessed at $409,700 but could be more valuable because of the land use approvals to build already secured, Pearce noted.
There are statutory limits, however, on how long before a developer runs out of time to build and Pearce agreed that, “we’re probably coming up on the time period when (the prospective developer) would have to apply for an extension on that time. … We’re starting to evaluate our options.”
Pearce speculated that the economic downturn has kept the developer from moving forward on the project. “We’ve tried to reach out to him to get the property turned into something productive,” the attorney said, but thus far, there’s been no activity.