On Monday, March 8, after another long and contentious meeting, the Verona Town Council voted to adopt an ordinance on the redevelopment of the Spectrum360 property at the corner of Sunset and Bloomfield avenues. The vote was 4-1, with Mayor Jack McEvoy casting the lone ballot against.
The tally, however, belied the Council’s ongoing reservations about the project, which has been brewing since late 2017. In May 2019, to avert a builder’s remedy lawsuit that could have forced much more extensive development on Verona, the Council reluctantly reached a settlement to allow a plan that reduced the size of the proposed development to 200 units from 300.
Since then, the project has been in and out of the Planning Board as Verona struggled to reconcile what’s planned for the site with what town laws allow. Finally, in late January, the Planning Board reported that the ordinance had “several deficiencies and inconsistencies” with Verona’s Master Plan and recommended that the Council “materially modify” it. In particular, the Planning Board asserted that the ordinance had not noted that the Spectrum360 site is in Planning Area 5 (PA5) zone, which could have protected it from development as an environmentally sensitive area. (The Planning Board’s report to the Town Council begins on page 4 of this document.)
Joseph Baumann, a lawyer with McManimon, Scotland & Baumann in Roseland who has been advising Verona on the project, told the Council that New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) was aware of the PA5 designation when it approved the project. He said that Council had reviewed the Planning Board’s comments, which he characterized as “helpful” and “thoughtful,” and said that while it “didn’t agree with all of them” it did make some changes to the ordinance as a result. He said that the Council had also reviewed comments from Peter Steck, a planner working for opponents to the redevelopment.
“There will be a lot of debate, I suspect, in the public hearing about particular words or sentences or conclusions or facts included in the plan itself,” Bauman said. “But the redevelopment area was properly designated, was approved, by the DCA. That’s a fact. No one has, as far as I know, challenged the legality of the ordinance or the plan, no one suggested that the plan isn’t compliant with the redevelopment housing law.” But for Bauman, the analysis came down to one central fact: “The plan is designed to effectuate our obligation under a settlement agreement that we’ve already executed.”
That did little to mollify Council members. “We only need to provide the developer with the accommodations and exceptions required to construct the development that is contemplated in the settlement,” said Deputy Mayor Alex Roman, “and we don’t need to go any further beyond that without serious strict reasoning behind it, and on a lot of these things, I’m not seeing it.”
Councilman Kevin Ryan wanted to know why the ordinance couldn’t compel the developer to comply with things like Verona’s steep slope ordinance. “The steep slope ordinance will require a thorough topographic survey to be completed,” Town Manager Matt Cavallo said. “That would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and the developer is not going to expend that money before they have something implying that they’re going to have approval.”
“Our planners have worked with the developer in trying to determine which ordinances they could comply with and which ordinances they can’t,” Cavallo added, “and in recent meetings we have decided that they can comply with the stormwater ordinance, they can comply with our tree ordinance. The steep slope is the only really environmental one that we’re exempting them from, and it was because of that reason. So I think that has to be made clear to the public.”
McEvoy continued to appeal for more clarifications and tighter language across the document. “I’ve been to plenty of Planning Board and Board of Adjustment meetings,” he said, referring to Verona’s two zoning bodies, “and I know these developers will weasel their way around and get in the back door. I think they should be cleared up before we approve this plan.”
The Council went into closed session, and when it came out, it was clear that members had been cautioned about what could happen if they failed to approve the ordinance. “The legal team and the professionals are mindful of the concerns of the mayor, deputy mayor and other members of the Council,” said Bauman, “that there are some improvements that they would like to impose on the project. And we’ve advised them that we believe that we can address those issues and concerns as part of the contract, which will bind the developer to the construction of the project.”