Ecuadoran immigrant Washington Pesantez has spent 17 years on Cortlandt St. in Belleville’s Valley section where he has maintained a residence for his family while managing a nearby warehouse.
On the same block, Bob and Rhonda Schmitt have raised four children during the past three decades.
Sal Sorce has operated a carting firm on the street for five years and Paul Emmarco has run a business with “worldwide customers” there for 31 years.
And Diane Rothwell recently marked her 28th year in the same Terry St. house, off Cortlandt, where she nurtured three offspring and is now putting a fourth through school.
Aside from living and/or working in the same neighborhood, they all share something else in common: a fear that, at some point, they may all have to get out to make way for a prospective developer looking to build 158 one- and two-bedroom upscale apartments there.
When the would-be builder’s legal representative appeared before the township mayor and council back on Jan. 13, it was mentioned that his client would be looking to the township to declare part of the neighborhood as “an area in need of redevelopment” and to grant a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement.
Should that happen, the residents and their advisers say, the township could also be asked to exercise its power of eminent domain to acquire their properties to support the builder’s plan.
So far, the developer has yet to file an application with the township to build anything but that hasn’t stopped the Belleville Planning Board from voting Nov. 12 to recommend that Cortlandt, roughly from the railroad embankment down and from Joralemon north to Terry, be classified as an area in need of redevelopment. The actual locations specified in the board resolution are: 91 Terry St. and 371- 381 Cortlandt St.
It now remains for the Township Council to affirm, reject or modify that recommendation.
Although the Planning Board resolution references the target area as a “noncondemnation” tract, several of the area residents said they had been approached by the same realtor with offers to buy their properties.
In a letter circulated among her neighbors, Rothwell asserted that the targeted area “is certainly not an ‘area in need of redevelopment.’ It is a thriving area that has single- and two-family homes co-existing with commercial and industrial uses very well. Residential and commercial property owners must unite and fight this blatant plan to confiscate our properties.”
Rothwell writes that the prospective developer apparently desires to build “on the site of the older industrial building behind the homes on the west side of Cortlandt St., between Terry and Joralemon Sts.”
If that’s the case, she writes, it will be very impractical because the project site “is a narrow lot with frontage on Terry St. and the corner of Cortlandt and Joralemon Sts. It appears the real attempt to is to acquire all the homes adjacent to this lot and build a huge residential development on the entire block.”
And, she adds, if that happens, local property taxes will likely go up because of greater demand for municipal services such as “police and fire protection … increased use of our aged sewer and water lines [and] increased enrollment in our school system and we’re already overtaxed.”
Right now in Belleville, Rothwell told The Observer, “we have close to 600 homes in foreclosure. The housing market is at an astronomically low level and we’re talking about disrupting some 20 families in this neighborhood?”
Further, she said, given the limited amount of parking available now, “if you add 158 units, it will be horrendous.”
Rob Schmitt, a retired teacher, and his spouse Rhonda have been renters on Cortlandt for 32 years. “We can’t afford to move,” Rob said. Rhonda added: “You put down roots and it becomes part of you. We live in a very stable neighborhood.”
For Pesantez, moving from the neighborhood is unthinkable. “I have two kids, ages 15 and 13. My older boy is in the high school marching band and the younger one plays soccer. They are very involved in their schools. And I have been taking care of the warehouse, and the businesses that work from there, for 10 years.”
Emmarco, whose company makes specialized equipment used at nuclear reactor sites around the globe, “including China,” and even space shuttles, said it would be “extremely damaging to try to move,” given his longtime
And Sorce said it would be “very hard to find parking” for his fleet of trucks. “And if you do find parking in the street, some are going to get broken into.”
There also remains the question of the environmental cleanup that would likely be needed before the developer could start construction and who would end up paying for that, civic activist Jeff Mattingly observed.
Mattingly mentioned the old Public School 1 property as a case in point where the township designated a developer who planned to build 60 apartments on the site. But after the township assumed the costs of taking down the old school building and removing contaminants from an underground fuel tank, the developer walked away from the project.