Constituent Questions: Development, Town Planners, Redevelopment, PILOTs
We have heard a lot during this campaign about redevelopment, town planners, and payments in lieu of taxes that municipalities sometimes use to incentivize redevelopment. Part of this discussion is complicated, but part of it is very straightforward. The simple part is that we need to have experts work with us to define the town that we want. We have a huge opportunity in the next few years, and we need the right leadership and expertise to seize it.
First, we need a cohesive plan for redevelopment as we have affordable housing obligations to meet. Right now, we don’t have a cohesive plan.
I proposed a full-time town planner four years ago, but nothing substantive has come of this idea. My efforts resulted in the creation of a line item in our budget to hire a full-time town planner, but there has been no hiring and there is no plan to hire. I do not understand why holistic planning for townwide development and redevelopment is not a priority. If we want to truly prosper as a town, we have to plan for what we want our town to look like. That means planning for school capacity, for example, and tying it to residential development, environmental sustainability, livability, and access for everyone in town. We have to incorporate support for seniors so that they can stay connected to their communities and so that we can all benefit from their experience and their lives. All of that relates to development and has to be part of our plan for our town. We need better access to our incredible assets, including Crystal Lake, the reservoir, our parks, and, eventually, vastly improved downtown walking and gathering spaces. This will not be achieved without a Mayor who has the leadership and vision to engage a full-time town planner who will create a full, coherent plan for our town.
One issue related to development in West Orange that I have heard about in this campaign are payments in lieu of taxes (“PILOTs”). The issue is presented as binary - you’re either for them or against them - without room for thoughtful analysis. I disagree that any responsible candidate or elected official should take an absolute position against PILOTs. If a developer is interested in improving a property that is failing, has falling tax revenue, is dilapidated, and is undesirable, then, if we can improve the town and ultimately increase tax revenue by offering an incentive for development, perhaps it makes sense to offer such incentive. However, if a property is not failing, is not experiencing falling revenue or taxable value, or can be easily rehabilitated to correct any issues, then an incentive such as a PILOT does not make sense. Business owners and property developers have a responsibility to the residents of West Orange and we have to have a municipal government that holds them to that responsibility. A developer like Prism, for example, should have been defaulted from downtown redevelopment years ago, but only when I showed courage and rallied my Council colleagues did the administration agree to default them, resulting in us taking control of downtown properties. Again it is critical that we have a coherent plan, and a town planner for development of West Orange will be among the first things I pursue as Mayor.
I appreciate an approach that I have seen Essex County government take and would like to see West Orange imitate it more. Essex County occasionally buys available properties and leases their operation. The County then benefits from revenue derived from those properties and owns an asset that can be improved and later sold or developed to create revenue streams for the county budget. An approach like that will ultimately help alleviate our over-reliance on property taxes in this town. Again I return to the theme of my campaign, we need the person with the right leadership and vision elected to the Mayor’s office and I am the only candidate who has demonstrated such successes and traits in municipal office.