In a 4-1 vote on Monday night, the Verona Town Council approved an ordinance to buy the former Cameco property. The Council and Township Manager Matthew Cavallo also described, in broad terms, how the site would be turned into low-density affordable housing and said that Verona is already in negotiations with several developers to do so.
The ordinance authorizes a $3.1 million bond. Of that, $2.85 million is to buy the property, with the balance going towards bonding costs, environmental and engineering studies, and closing costs.
The Cameco development–roughly 50 units that would all be affordable housing–combined with the agreements on the Poekel and Spectrum360 properties and existing units at the Hillwood Terrace building now used as senior citizens housing, should take Verona to the 239 units that officials here believe will eventually be ordered by Essex County Superior Court. Since former Gov. Chris Christie abandoned the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) and New Jersey’s state legislature failed to create a replacement, affordable housing quotas have been left to county superior courts to establish. But the courts have been slow to act, leaving municipal governments across the state to guess at what their obligations might be. Verona did not put an affordable housing requirement in the 2015 redevelopment plan for the Annin Flag factory because it believed at the time that it had fulfilled its quota.
“The number has been floating out there in the ethernet for four years,” Mayor Kevin Ryan said Monday night. “Every time we think we have a number, someone else comes up with another one.”
“If you want to blame somebody,” Ryan said later, “it’s people at the state and legislative level who have kicked this thing all over the place, put it back into the court system and dumped this on the municipalities.”
By taking control of the property and mandating a development that will be 100% affordable, Verona avoids the prospect of a high-density development on the 2.3 acre sight that could have added hundreds of children to our schools and hundred of cars to the traffic to Bloomfield Avenue. It also may be able to prevent more development on other properties elsewhere in town.
“This is an opportunity to acquire a fairly substantial land tract that is on a major roadway, that is close to public transit, retail and services that I think is very well suited to this particular purpose,” said Councilman Alex Roman. “It is an opportunity for us to do a development that will get us far more affordable housing credits, with less density on the property than a conventional redevelopment process. This is probably one of the best ways for us to avoid a worse impact on the town.”
The municipal government will not be the Cameco development’s builder. Instead, Verona is looking to quickly flip the property to a company that can do the work. A typical affordable housing project would have had 20% or less of the total units available for affordable housing, which means that it could have taken many more units to reach Verona’s goals.
Both Councilmen Michael Nochimson and Jack McEvoy spoke in favor of the project, saying that the state does not care the way a municipality does about the impact of over-development on a community. “They just about the number of affordable units and what you’re going to do to get to that number,” McEvoy said.
Councilman Ted Giblin was the lone No vote against the purchase. As he had done with Verona’s attempt to buy the former Congregation Beth Ahm synagogue, he questioned why Verona was getting involved in real estate and and attempted to assert that a 100% affordable development could not be built. Cavallo clarified after the meeting that Verona can in fact do so by working with a developer who is willing to build such a complex. A 100% affordable project is now being built in North Caldwell beyond the mansions that are going up on the western side of White Rock Road. Cavallo said during the meeting that the interest cost on the bonds would be about $100,000 a year and that much of that would be covered by the rental income from the houses that are also on the Cameco property.
The residents who asked questions during the public portion of the meeting were generally in favor of the purchase and the development. You can watch their comments in the full meeting video below. The discussion of the Cameco purchase starts at about the 33 minute mark.
In other news, the Council is seeking a grant to cover the repaving of several parking lots in town. Cavallo also said that municipal overtime has fallen substantially since 2015, especially Verona Police Department overtime. The current overtime expenditure for 2018 is $558,000, down from $795,000 for 2015.