Last Tuesday’s Belleville Township Council meeting started out with lots of bonhomie as congratulations were extended to Michael Roscommons House owner Frank Dauksis and College of St. Elizabeth senior Morgan Sim on their selections as grand marshal and parade queen, respectively, for the upcoming Nutley Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
But the upbeat mood at the meeting quickly changed when the governing body was asked to vote on a proposed financial agreement with the redeveloper of a 2-acre Valley tract at Terry and Cortlandt Sts.
Despite several residents’ impassioned pleas to reject the deal, arguing that the project was a bad fit for the neighborhood, a majority voted last Tuesday, Feb. 28, to approve it.
Voting “no” were Councilman John Notari, who represents the Fourth Ward where the project would be built, and Councilman-at-large Kevin Kennedy.
But Councilmembers Joseph Longo, Marie Strumolo Burke, Vincent Cozzarelli and Steven Rovell and Mayor Ray Kimble, were in favor, with Strumolo Burke and Longo phoning in their votes.
Angry residents griped that the redeveloper would be forcing out active businesses at the site, getting an unfair tax break on the backs of already overtaxed property owners, saddling the township with another high-density residential project that will impose more demands on municipal services and that it would further squeeze curbside parking availability, among other complaints.
Plans call for construction of a four- or five-story, 70-foot-tall building containing 115 rental apartments with on-site parking for 173 vehicles.
The redeveloper can now apply to the Planning Board for site plan approval and, if the board signs off, the plan comes before the mayor and council for a final go-ahead, according to Kimble.
The township designated the project site as “an area in need of redevelopment” in August 2016 and, four months later, named 91 Terry St. Urban Renewal LLC as the site’s redeveloper.
As part of the financial agreement, the township is accepting the redeveloper’s application for a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) which, as listed in the ordinance ratifying the agreement, is expected to generate revenues “totaling $5,402,016” over the life of the agreement (12 or 14 years), with the county getting 5% of the total.
Township Tax Assessor Kevin Esposito said the township would realize “$2,590 per unit” in annual PILOT revenues from the project or a building total of nearly $300,000.
“That’s a significant financial benefit,” Esposito said, because it represents $75,000 more than the revenues the township would get from conventional taxes.
And, he added, if the monthly rents go up, the PILOT would be adjusted upward accordingly.
Further, Esposito said, the PILOT applies only to improvements on the property; the township will continue to receive conventional taxes on the land, which, he said, amounts to $62,000 a year, of which the Board of Education “will get half.”
Still, critics argued that the combined impact of tax abatements for this and other projects will depress the value of property township-wide and deprive the school district of needed revenues.
When Vincent Frantantoni pointed to apparent inconsistencies contained in the financial agreement and called for the document to be corrected and re-advertised, Kimble said: “Those were typos; they were corrected.”
Frantantoni also asserted that the project, as now proposed, “violates every tenet of the township zoning ordinance.” And Jeff Mattingly warned that firefighters would be hard-pressed to access the site (whose western border is a hill topped by a railroad track and utility wires) “over the backs of [neighbors’] houses. People are going to die for no good reason.”
Kimble said firefighters would “bring hoses through [residential] yards” to reach a fire – something, he said, that is common practice in the township.
When asked about the situation, Fire Chief Robert Caruso said, “there seems to be a lot of concern” about access to the property “and it does present certain challenges …. There are lessons learned on similarly constructed buildings which I can discuss later with you, mayor.”
Robert Smith, a neighbor of the project site, urged the mayor to “make sure you got a plan that’s air-tight.”
And another resident advised the governing body to “stop pursuing residential development as a cure-all” to the township’s fiscal concerns.
Meanwhile, at the same meeting, the mayor and council opened the door to another potential residential project when they voted to direct the Planning Board to conduct an investigation to determine whether a vacant lot at 78-102 Washington Ave., off William St., satisfies the criteria for “an area in need of redevelopment.”
Kimble told The Observer a prospective developer has expressed interest in putting up “apartments and ground-floor retail” at the site. A few years ago, the township approved plans for an eight-story, 80-unit apartment building with retail and underground parking on the site and later amended plans for a six-story structure on this site but nothing was ever built.