During his short-lived political career as our Fourth Ward Councilman from 2000 to 2004, Michael Melham was the leading proponent of the fiasco known as the Valley Redevelopment Plan. Most Belleville residents recognized it for what it was, and called it a real estate scam. “A real estate scam disguised as a redevelopment plan”. That was the opinion of S.C.R.A.P., (Stop the Council Redevelopment Area Plan) the Belleville citizens organization formed to fight the land grab.
In our view it was an obscene and obvious attempt to legally “steal” a highly desirable piece of privately owned land at bargain basement prices for the benefit of a “buddy” developer. The project designated an incredible 103 acres of homes and businesses, almost one hundred homes and fifty businesses, as being an area in need of redevelopment and subject to eminent domain proceedings. The fiasco resulted in a major lawsuit, hundreds of Belleville residents demonstrating at town hall, much media coverage and was ultimately one of the main factors in the ouster of then Mayor Paserchia from office in 2002. Most of the homes and businesses were located in the Fourth Ward. Ironically our own Councilman Melham was the leader of the move to oust his own constituents from their homes and businesses. Meanwhile a smaller area of the redevelopment plan was located in the Third Ward, where Councilman Escott fought to protect his constituents from the land grab.
To understand the sheer insanity of the project and why 99.99% of developers would not touch it with a ten foot pole, you need to understand who approved it. Was the plan created by some dedicated, savvy, educated, successful leaders who had a record of business accomplishment ? Or was it created by four half wit local politicians whose only claim to achievement was that all four of them had Essex “county jobs” ? This clown quartet was advised by their political lord and savior Richard Yanuzzi.
Redevelopment areas were previously legally referred to as “blighted areas”, and typically would involve small areas of dilapidated structures and unused land. But not with our local town council turned real estate tycoons. The taking of good homes and thriving businesses was fine with those four council members. Melham was the 25 year old county employee living at home and fantasizing about being the next Trump. Melham boldly told the Star-Ledger (11/5/02), “I’m not interested in developing one lot at a time. I’m interested in developing acres at a time. Drastic times call for drastic measures”. Big words for someone living at home with mom.
The engineering report used to justify declaring the area in need of redevelopment was a worthless piece of rubbish, to put it mildly. Apparently written by individuals long overdue for their eye exams, it falsely listed many homes and businesses as vacant and abandoned when in fact there were none. The report listed the busy and bustling US Post Office Annex on Main Street with hundreds of workers and post office vehicles as “Vacant”. The conditions of homes was grossly misrepresented. Even a brand new $300k home was included in the area in need of redevelopment.
Voting to declare these homes and businesses as being in need of redevelopment crippled these property owners. They became victims and hostages of the incompetence and dishonesty of these political puppets. Real estate transactions came to a dead halt. You could not sell your house or building, as no one knew if or when their property would be taken, and what the price might even be. No variances or building permits could be issued to anyone in the area, and you could forget about applying for a second mortgage, or college or business loan. When Belleville homeowners showed up at Town Hall meetings to plead for help, their cries fell on deaf ears. Melham was famous for rolling his eyes and smirking at the sob stories of his constituents. These were the same people on whose door Melham had knocked a year earlier asking for their vote in his first bid for office.
Councilmen Escott, Digori and Kennedy opposed the scheme and managed to block Melham and the others from approving a half million dollar bond scam which Melham and company claimed was needed to move the process along. They could not quite explain what the money would be used for, other than consultations and miscellaneous associated costs. The bond vote required five votes but they only had four. The four were determined and instead approved by a simple majority vote to spend $30,000 to hire an engineering firm to produce project information packets. These packets would be sent to prospective developers. These RFP’s (requests for proposals) were sent to over fifty leading developers in the NJ/NY region. The sixty day response period came and went with no interest by any developers in the controversial project…or so it seemed. Eyebrows were raised when two hours before the Town Clerk’s office closed on the last day of the deadline, a representative of one developer suddenly showed up at the last minute to drop off a proposal. At the first Town Council meeting where the developer was introduced, many eyebrows were raised again by the chumminess of Melham with the developer. Melham was on a first name basis and happily chatting away with “Eric”.
Belleville residents throughout town united to fight the land grab. Funds were donated to file a lawsuit. The owners of the 24-acre former Walter Kidde site joined the lawsuit against the town after meeting with town officials and being informed that they could expect to receive $8-$10 million dollars for their $20+ million dollar property. Melham famously said that he, “was proud of all the lawsuits”, (Belleville Times 2/28/02). Getting their hands on the former Walter Kidde site and the immediate surrounding blocks was in our view the council’s real plan all along. Any developer approved by the Town Council could be given the option to pick and choose which parcels he might find more promising for developing. Even in his current mayoral campaign, Melham has stated that the township would be wise to consider using the power of eminent domain for the former Walter Kidde property (The Observer 11/22/17). The inclusion of all the other scattered homes and businesses and acreage in the plan was in our opinion a shrewd strategy intended to discourage any other developers from submitting proposals. A strategy that apparently worked.
The May 2002 election ousted Melham’s ally Mayor Paserchia in a landslide loss, losing by a 2-1 margin. The balance was now tipped, with Mayor Digori and three council members in favor of ending the redevelopment nightmare. Melham’s other council allies would all meet similar election 2-1 losses in 2004. Melham wisely avoided a humiliating defeat when he announced that he would not be seeking re-election.
Nevertheless Melham fought tooth and nail to the bitter end to keep the redevelopment plan in place. When the Town Council voted 4-3 to kill the plan, a visibly angry Melham cried out, “this is a disgrace” (Star-Ledger 11/13/02).
Former member of S.C.R.A.P.
Current president of the Belleville Historical Society
We are in the process of sourcing articles referenced in this letter, and will attach them for anyone interested in researching further.
Update: Here is Part 2 of Mr. Perrone’s account of the Valley Redevelopment ordeal: