BY MICHAEL RICONDA
SUFFERN – The Orange Avenue apartment project remains tied up in negotiations, but Suffern residents are already bristling to express their own opinions on whether or not a zoning change should accommodate the project.
A public hearing was held on Tuesday to solicit commentary on a proposed zoning change and the creation of a new transit development district which would allow the 92-unit, market rate apartment complex to be built at a vacant Orange Avenue property. Though the Village Board did not proceed with a vote, residents were allowed to speak.
Villagers seemed split on the issue, with some arguing the zone change was needed to bring the complex-and the business which would presumably follow-to Suffern. Others expressed skepticism, arguing business resiliency was a bigger issue than housing.
Former Suffern Mayor Dagan LaCorte spoke fervently in favor of the zone change, arguing the rise of large shopping centers in New Jersey and commercial development along Route 17 required an appeal to those who wish to live where they shop.
“People want to live in an area, have mass transit there, shop close by, eat there, and live there,” LaCorte said.
LaCorte also suggested the housing would be an excellent way to bring young people into the village and revitalize it with spending which might otherwise flow into New York City or other areas to which youths are migrating.
Suffern resident and business-owner Manny Ortiz agreed, arguing the zone change would serve as a catalyst for renewed interest in the village and its businesses. At the same time, he argued Suffern’s downtown area has to be the epicenter of any real economic growth.
“What’s really gonna change things is to put something in that’s gonna bring people downtown who have money to spend,” Ortiz said. “Something has to happen downtown.”
Others praised efforts to revive business, but questioned the effectiveness of the project. Bob Morris questioned whether or not this project or others attempted in the past would have a tangible impact downtown where businesses frequently struggle to survive.
“Obviously, this rationale isn’t working,” Morris said. “Maybe we should look at the underlying causes as to why these storefronts are being vacated.”
Morris suggested the cost of living might be the cause of the village’s economic woes rather than the cost of doing business. He suggested postponing a vote on zoning changes until such issues were discussed.
Deborah Munitz, a Montebello resident whose mother resides in the village, expressed a desire for a larger vision. Without broad, long-term plans, the project might not steer people to areas where business was needed, but merely develop one small area of Suffern.
“My concern is that I don’t see how this particular project going to make this a village center,” Munitz said. “Why do we need more apartments? The issue is why aren’t people coming to this area. I don’t think it’s because it’s missing another apartment building.”
A prior public hearing was canceled on September 3 to to accommodate continued PILOT talks between developers with Orange Avenue Associates and the Ramapo Central School District, but no agreement had been reached at the time of the meeting.
The public hearing was expected to proceed with or without a PILOT. However, without an agreement in place, Abato said it was Village policy to hold off on any zoning board decision. “It has been my belief and remains my belief that there should not be a vote on the zone change without an agreement from the school district,” Abato stated at the cancelled meeting.
Since Wednesday, progress has been limited. Joshua Goldstein of Orange Avenue Associates stated they made a counter-offer to the School District on Wednesday, but have not heard back since then. According to Abato, the tax revenues outlined by PILOT agreements proposed by Orange Avenue and the School District remain “far apart.”
The project has already proven controversial due to allegations of undue influence from the state. The Goldstein Family, which manages a number of developments and real estate holdings, has been a major contributor to Governor Andrew Cuomo in the past.
Cuomo’s Campaign Treasurer Richard Sirota has also been listed as a private investor in the project. Though Sirota has intimate ties to Albany, Joshua Goldstein argues he is only an investor in the Orange Avenue project and has no real bargaining power.
The Orange Avenue project sustained an additional PR blow last week when the Ramapo Town Board held a special meeting to approve a 25 to 40 year PILOT program with Orange Avenue which would allow the developer to pay only 15 percent of its school tax obligations and could cost the district $16.6 million in lost revenues.
According to School Board President Theresa DiFalco, the deal was reached without the notification or consent of the school board. Abato was similarly critical, pledging to back the school board arguing it was “not the way I conduct business in the Village of Suffern.”
Though the agreement is legally-binding, Orange Avenue promised it would disavow it when a deal has been made with the cooperation of the school district.