Township Manager Matt Cavallo notified members of the Town Council and Verona Rescue Squad today that he will be submitting an ordinance for Monday night’s Council meeting to rescind the township’s proposed purchase of 56 Grove Avenue, the home of Congregation Beth Ahm. The Council had unanimously authorized the purchase of the property for $900,000 at its May 1 meeting and was considering relocating the Verona Rescue Squad to the site.
The action comes in the wake of a petition drive mounted by five Verona residents who live near the synagogue: Patricia and Salvatore Calandra, Thomas and Denise Bastanza, and William Battersby. Carrie Ford, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for Town Council in May, acted as the notary public on the petition drive. All had spoken in opposition to the purchase at the May 1 Town Council meeting.
Verona is organized as a so-called Faulkner Act municipality and an obscure provision allows residents of these kinds of municipalities to challenge Council decisions through a petition. The petition on the synagogue was submitted to the township on Wednesday May 24, and has been certified as valid by the township’s attorney, Brian Aloia. That left Verona’s municipal government with two options: Hold a referendum on the petition, or adopt an ordinance rescinding the purchase. The referendum would have needed to be done in a special election, which would have cost taxpayers $20,000. It also would not have been possible to hold a referendum in time to meet the synagogue’s needs for a speedy closing on the property.
“I want to express to the Rescue Squad my regrets that we cannot proceed with the proposed relocation,” Cavallo wrote in an email to Rescue Squad Captain Frederick Tempesta sent today, “and that I personally believe that the location would have been a great spot, centrally located, and would have been a great asset to the community.” The town has been searching for a new location for both the Rescue Squad and Firehouse #2 for 18 months because neither property now meets the needs of its first responders.
Congregation Beth Ahm, which has been part of Verona for 80 years, is merging with another synagogue out of town and put its building on the market in January. “We are back on the market and hoping someone will buy the building,” Congregation Beth Ahm President Debbie Lawrence said on Wednesday afternoon. “We are disappointed that the town will not be able to purchase the building because we thought it was a win-win for everyone.”
The asking price for the property is $1 million. Houses of worship from outside Verona were interested in the property, but it could also be purchased by a developer. It is zoned residential and could be used for single-family housing or multi-family development, although the latter would require Board of Adjustment or Planning Board approval. Cavallo said at the May 1 meeting that if the property were sold to another house of worship, it could exacerbate parking problems in the area, particularly if the new congregation has Sunday worship. There is a Jehovah’s Witness congregation on Personette Avenue and the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit on Gould Street. The synagogue property only has 11 parking spaces.
“We’re very pleased with the council’s decision and we are grateful that they listened to our concerns and responded with respect and understanding,” said Battersby by email. “We look forward to attending future town council meetings and encourage all of our Verona neighbors to do so.” The petition organizers collected about 250 signatures, 219 of which were found to be valid by Verona’s town clerk. (Petition signers had to be registered to vote in Verona).
“I am pleased with the outcome,” said Tom Bastanza. “It confirms how privileged we are to live in a democracy, that we actually have the right to petition.” Reaffirming the support of the Rescue Squad that he voiced at the Council meeting, Bastanza added, “The number of signatures that we got in such a short time is a testament that this was not an appropriate use of the property.”
The petition drive is an unwitting lesson in the importance of voting in state Assembly elections. Under the rules governing Faulkner Act towns, the number of signatures needed on a petition drive must equal at least 15% of the total votes cast in the last Assembly election. The last election occurred in 2015, an off-year election with no other major contest on the ballot, and only 1,191 of Verona’s then 10,268 registered voters cast ballots. As a result, only 179 signatures were needed for the petition. By contrast, had the petition total been determined by the ballots cast in the most recent presidential election, some 1,200 signatures would have been needed.
MyVeronaNJ.com obtained the signed petitions through an Open Records Act request. They are organized into five PDFs, and you can view the signatures on each here: Petition 1, Petition 2, Petition 3, Petition 4 and Petition 5.