For the past 12 months I’ve been following a trail on the Belleville Council and its affordable housing obligation under COAH. Two weeks ago, I finally acquired the evidence we needed to prove once and for all that this Council intends to bring massive residential development down on an already overpopulated, overtaxed, traffic-snarled, and broken-down Belleville Township.
All those times you heard people like Vincent Frantantoni, Jeff Mattingly, and myself talking incessantly about “residential redevelopment”, and accusing the Council of maneuvering to bring high density residential to Belleville? This is exactly what we were talking about, folks. Now there’s no way for our illustrious elected officials to continue denying our accusations.
It’s not often you get such clear-cut vindication in this game. I have to admit, though….on the rare occasion when everything finally comes together, it sure is delicious.
However on a subject like this, I think we all would have preferred to have been proven wrong.
The Fair Share Housing Plan
What follows is our findings based on the Township’s required court filings under the Supreme Court “Mount Laurel” decisions. For those of you who are unfamiliar with COAH and the whole affordable housing debate in New Jersey, there is a pretty concise overview right in the Introduction section on the first pages.
Here are the documents we identified through various legal channels, and ultimately obtained via OPRA:
For some quick background, the Housing Element and Fair Share Housing Plan was required to be filed by the township by December 8, 2015. The Council filed a draft version of this plan on December 7. Evidently they did not complete the full filing by the mandatory deadline, and requested an extension from the courts to April 1, 2016, which is a little more than a week from the date of this article. It is unclear if they were in fact granted the extension. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t keep postponing this until after the May election. Perhaps they were already denied further extensions.
Regardless, this draft is the most current version of their plan as of March 9th. With only about a week left before April 1st, it’s probably safe to say this draft is as good as final.
Keep in mind, this is a legal document already submitted to the courts just three months ago. If the Council says they can’t discuss the plan, then you can counter by simply pointing out that this document is already a public record and therefore, the need for any further secrecy is ridiculous. Or more likely, if the Council tries to claim this information is somehow inaccurate, then logically that means they would be admitting to perjury in a required legal filing under a Supreme Court ruling.
So my friends, that leaves exactly zero room for any political tapdancing here. No doubt to their dismay, this document bares all. It’s exactly what we were counting on – descriptive and irrefutable – and why we’ve stayed completely quiet on the subject of COAH this past year. Play dumb and let them dig their own holes, I say.
Over the past two weeks I’ve selectively released this information to certain circles internally for discussion and needless to say, the feedback has been intensely negative. You’ll understand why by the time you’re finished reading this article. Now, I’m releasing the whole enchilada for everyone to finally understand what’s about to happen, and why we’ve been fighting this battle all along.
You’ve been deliberately left out of this discussion for at least 12 months, and for good reason. Last year the Council saw the escalating public outrage from the failed Second River Station proposal in which a developer wanted to bring over 4,000 new housing units to the 24-acre Kidde/Finkelstein property in a wildly fanciful (to put it mildly) plan that included 50-story skyscrapers in the Valley.
In our opinion, given the current state of the township, this plan that the Council itself is now pushing forward at breakneck speed is even more berserk than the Second River Station project. The only way to make it happen without 36,000 people forming a lynch mob outside of Town Hall is to fly this plan under the radar, completely quiet and hidden from the public eye.
They have failed.
There are no secrets in Belleville politics. You would think these people would understand that by now.
Belleville Zoning Maps
Let’s start by showing you what Belleville looks like according to the latest available zoning map supplied by the township. We’re told the following map includes the latest zoning changes, and is current to about the beginning of this year.
Click the link below to view the full zoning map.
I’ve taken this map and created an enlarged view of the Washington Ave corridor and what’s usually referred to as “The Valley”. For orientation, the right side of this map is basically North, the lower side of the image East, etc.
You can see the faint outline of Washington Ave, running north to south, through the red-blue-green colored zones. Everything west of Washington Ave (above it in this image) has been de-colored to keep visual focus on the areas we’re about to discuss.
Everything pictured below the Conrail rail line running parallel along the eastern side of Washington Ave is The Valley, the heart of Belleville’s commercial and industrial character, running adjacent to Route 21.
Outlined in bright green is the Walter Kidde/Finkelstein property, a 23.7-acre formerly polluted property zoned for Retail and Light Industrial. We understand it is now close to being clean by DEP standards, if not fully remediated already. As we understand it, the Finkelsteins have sunk more than $5 million of their own money on the cleanup costs, and each year they pay nearly $500,000 dollars in taxes to Belleville township for this property. This unusually large tract of land for this area is a highly coveted prize for anyone who can secure it at below sticker price. Perhaps that explains the Council’s sudden fascination in the past 6 months with eminent domain?
After all, where else in densely-populated Essex County New Jersey can you find nearly 24 acres of undeveloped land that is all but ready for development?
Well, as you’re about to find out, evidently the Belleville Council has done far more than just covet the Finkelstein property.
The Smoking Gun
Although I highly recommend you at least browse the 181-page Fair Share Housing Plan, some of which can be skipped entirely, I’ve plucked out two important pages for you to examine for yourself. If you read nothing else, these will tell you enough to see where this Council is going with this plan.
First, take a look at page 20 by clicking this link:
On page 20 of the Housing Plan, look at the chart in the middle of the page. Above it, the text reads as follows:
“Projecting into the future, the Township anticipates a total of 2,493 new housing units over the next ten year period. This includes approved or anticipated development or redevelopment projects as well as a projection of the historic trends.”
The projects listed on that chart are the Geriatric Hospital, Mill Street, Joralemon/Cortlandt….and lo and behold, the Finkelstein property. Of the 2,493 anticipated housing units from these four projects, 2000 of those units are being developed on the Finkelstein property alone.
And as this description is telling us, this is just what is already in some stage of active negotiation or planning! Meanwhile, did anyone hear a word from the Council about this plan, or any development on that property whatsoever over the last year? Nope, not a peep, and we’ve been playing very close attention. Where was the public discussion on affordable housing in Belleville, a matter that is of public concern to anyone living in the town?
The closest we’ve come to the public being clued into their plans is Mauro Tucci suddenly announcing a few weeks ago that he had met with the Finkelsteins. That was it, no details whatsoever.
Really? The ink isn’t even dry on his ludicrous employment contract, with a salary that is more than double that of the previous interim manager Kevin Esposito, and already Tucci is working on land development deals? Is this why he was ushered in the door so quickly, under some seriously shady antics at the January 12 Council meeting?
Wait. It gets better.
While the plan says the nearly 2,500 new homes/apartments are coming to Belleville over the next ten years, the chart clearly tells us that this is all happening between 2016 and 2021. More than 200 new housing units are being constructed this year alone, according to this information.
So….almost 2,500 new families are coming to Belleville within the next five years, and not one member of the Council told the public anything about it?
From what I understand, the Council also didn’t even have the decency to consult with the school district about any of this high density development either. They were just as blind-sided by this plan as everyone else to whom I have passed this information along.
How many kids will be flooding the school district in the next five years from 2,500 new families? It’s no wonder Dr. Tomko and state monitor Tom Egan showed up at the special Council meeting last week, which by the way was a complete farce.
Speaking of which…
Denial: It’s Not Just a River
Here’s a brief moment of comedy for you to enjoy. It’s actually not at all funny, but given the sheer depravity of this entire fiasco, all you can do is laugh at the following bit of theater on display here.
At last week’s “special meeting” of the Council held at 4:30 PM in which this Housing Plan was supposed to be discussed with the public, Chairman of the Zoning Board Mr. Jerry DelGuercio was among the residents in attendance who stood up to ask questions.
Watch this quick snippet (timestamp code fixed) very closely:
Councilman Steve Rovell, you have no idea what Mr. DelGuercio is talking about when he mentions the Council’s plans to increase the density along Washington Avenue to 24 units per acre? You seriously have the audacity to look your own Zoning Board chairman dead in the face, squint your eyes, and deny knowing any of this?
Yet another a bald-faced lie on the public record, Councilman Rovell. Excuse my language, but don’t you ever grow tired of bulls***ing people? Or is this so habitual that you just don’t know the difference anymore?
Allow me to refresh your memory by directing you to page 30 of YOUR OWN HOUSING PLAN you just submitted to the courts three months ago. You know, the one you were just discussing in private session with Darlene Green of Maser Consulting literally 19 minutes before Mr. DelGuercio’s comment. The plan you’ve been hatching with your fellow collaborators in secret for the past year.
Under the section “Washington Street Inclusionary Zoning”, I quote the following:
“The Township will increase the zoning in each of the aforementioned zones to 24 units per acre with a mandatory 20% set-aside….”
For goodness sake, the same sentence is repeated three times in just those two paragraphs alone!
Yes, as you can see from the plan described on this page, in addition to bringing 2,500 new housing units into Belleville, the Council also intends to take the entire Washington Ave corridor and increase the density to 24 units per acre, on both sides of the avenue.
By the way, increasing the density of the zoning along the entire Washington Avenue corridor to 24 units per acre is double and and in some spots triple the existing density. Just think about how congested with traffic the avenue is at virtually all hours of the day. Then, imagine triple the amount of people living along Washington Ave.
Rush hour should be a blast every day. Better start walking to work, because I doubt anyone with an 07109 zip code will be getting there by automobile in the not-so-distant future.
The Sad Conclusion
So there you have it, everyone. You now have firm documented evidence in your hands in the form of an irrefutable court filing that this Council intends to continue ignoring Belleville’s many existing problems. They intend to move forward with dumping thousands of new homes or apartments on an already struggling township.
This is a township that, according to their own admission in this plan, already has an over 7% vacancy rate. Belleville reportedly has more than 500 homes in foreclosure. Sky-high and rising taxes, and antiquated infrastructure. A water system that is so dilapidated and neglected that water main breaks are a regular occurrence. Sources within the fire department tell us that more than half of the roughly 1100 fire hydrants in the town don’t even have enough water pressure to be able to fight a fire. Ballooning salaries, pensions, and benefits for a ludicrously top-heavy, bloated administration. Traffic snarled streets, crime, town-wide parking problems….the list goes on far longer than I can possibly encapsulate here.
A broke, financially-mismanaged town in a state of utter disrepair from top to bottom that according to NJ Monthly Magazine’s statistics has spiraled downward in virtually every category over the last decade.
Worst of all, an already overcrowded school district bursting at the seams that barely has enough room for its existing students, let alone conceivably thousands more flooding in.
A generally-accepted rule of thumb in looking at housing statistics is to assume that for all new residential developments, at least 50% of those homes will have one child. That means we can safely assume at least 1,250 new students will be coming to the school district within the next five years, just from the four projects that we know are already in progress. That doesn’t include any children from the massive redevelopment planned for Washington Avenue, which could add thousands more.
Where on earth will we fit thousands of new students? Will they be sitting on milk crates on the front lawns?
36,000 decent, hard-working people living in a town that is falling apart, with an effective population density that rivals some of the most densely-populated cities in the entire world, including Hong Kong. Rather than practicing fiscal responsibility, cutting back, lowering operating costs, and devoting resources to improving the township for its existing residents, this governing body has been devoting all their energy to…….dramatically increasing the population density of Belleville??
And these councilpersons up for re-election in May are “protecting the interests of the taxpayer”? They “share our concerns”? In what twisted realm of fantasy is that actually happening, because it sure as hell isn’t true in Belleville, NJ.
The Time for Action is Now
We’re done asking for common sense and fiscal responsibility from this Council. It’s never going to happen. It’s been two years of one giant lie after another. This “secret” development plan they’ve been hiding from Belleville residents is the final straw.
The time has come to put a swift end to the downward spiral of the township. It’s time for the governing bodies of Belleville to operate in the sunlight, not in the shadows of secrecy which as you can see from the evidence in this article alone, is only to your detriment….year after year, after year.
Please share this article, and help us spread the word of this outrageous plan to bury Belleville and the school district in high density residential housing, without first fixing the town’s many systemic problems.
Most importantly, please get yourself registered to vote immediately, if you’re not already. Then, get yourself and anyone within reach to the polls on May 10th to vote these soulless, morally destitute, unscrupulous individuals out in the Belleville Council Ward elections. Force the Council to send Mauro Tucci packing immediately. They can do it at any time with a simple majority vote. These plans cannot happen without the Town Manager signing his name to these deals, so clearly Tucci was brought in to do the dirty work for this Council.
And you as Belleville residents get stuck with the bill, and the wreckage to follow for years to come.
Just as residents and community advocates organized and brought the school district back from the brink of destruction from political graft and onto a healthier track of recovery, together we will do the same for the municipal government of this town. Together, residents and community advocates will finally put a stop to this destructive cycle of greed, once and for all.
Together, the people of Belleville will Reform Belleville.
Update (3/23/16): Here is a copy of the fee ordinance passed last night, which is the third element of this Housing Plan:
Now that you all at least have some idea what this issue is all about, ladies and gentlemen….let the political Dance of Denial begin.