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Teaneck Council Rezones World of Wings Property for Multi-Family Housing

Teaneck—Resident comments at a Teaneck Town Council meeting on Tuesday evening at Teaneck High School largely consisted of a wide variety of complaints against the developer AvalonBay Communities, as well as any kind of development on the World of Wings butterfly museum site due to its proximity to the CSX railroad tracks that transport flammable Bakken crude oil.

Under consideration, however, was not the fate of AvalonBay or CSX in Teaneck, but rather the rezoning of the World of Wings site at 1775 Windsor Road, from office and mixed use to multi-family residency, in an effort to bring in a for-profit developer to the site who would bring in higher ratables to address Teaneck’s rising tax burden.

Speaking Korean, with translation  through an interpreter, Ick Gyun Lee, the owner of World of Wings, shared with the council his reasoning for requesting the rezoning. He explained that he lost his wife suddenly in 2010 and established the kid-friendly butterfly museum as a legacy to her memory. He soon realized that, while the location was popular and extremely safe (intimating that the location itself near the rail line never presented an issue of any kind), his business decisions had been made in haste; he could not afford the property and now seeks to move the museum to a smaller location.

Douglas Bern, the lawyer for World of Wings, explained that the company was in financial distress and had, in fact, filed for tax appeals from Teaneck. The only purchaser interested in the property other than AvalonBay was a non-profit religious school, due to its limited zoning, and that AvalonBay provided the best opportunity out of the museum’s predicament. As part of its provisional contract negotiations, AvalonBay asked World of Wings to voluntarily withdraw its tax appeals, which it did.

These comments were not met by local residents with understanding about a local business in trouble. Instead, the council was met with vicious verbal attacks, some directed at Deputy Mayor Elie Katz and Councilman Mark Schwartz, JLNJ’s co-publisher, for supporting the rezoning.

Residents spoke for close to two hours; of the 150 people present, most appeared to object to the rezoning. Several people raised their voices while gesticulating at pictures of rail trains on fire. One resident told the council that the images summoned comparisons to Nazi concentration camps, while another said that approving the rezoning was “wrong in the way that child molestation is wrong.”

Paula Rogovin, of the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains, continued to pursue her argument that any development on the property brings up images of a fiery death sentence for any potential residents of the property and adds great risk to residents who live in the flash zone, which is an evacuation term for any resident who lives within half a mile radius of the tracks. She referred to an alleged earlier statement by council members that if CSX trains carrying Bakken crude oil were to derail near the site, there would be no point in firefighters even responding as anyone in that zone would be “vaporized.”

Several residents, while expressing their own concerns regarding noise or related issues regarding the rail tracks, pointed out that the threat of CSX trains crashing and causing fires, and safety concerns regarding any development at the site, are doubly concerning since the six schools and countless other residences and community institutions would not be considered safe places if these concerns were, in fact, founded. Deputy Mayor Katz also stated during the meeting that the CSX tracks extend all the way to North Dakota and it doesn’t make sense to not develop this one part of the track simply because of safety questions relating to CSX.

Councilman Henry Pruitt, who had previously not stated his opinion on the rezoning, said that concerns regarding the rail tracks and fire safety should and must be brought up with state and federal representatives. He said that he would like Rogovin to join him to bring these issues to New Jersey elected officials. Pruitt also explained that, during this debate, the heavy influence of the SEIU union was a New York-based effort and not local, and they have spent thousands of dollars on slick mailings, robo-calls and even in-person door-to-door visits. SEIU has opposed AvalonBay developments for its own reasons in many New Jersey towns, he said.

“This union does not give a dead frog about the welfare of the citizens of Teaneck,” Pruitt said. He added that he spent a lot of time reaching his decision in favor of the rezoning, having spoken with representatives of various other towns who host AvalonBay projects, and reported that the towns have very positive relations with the developer.

Mark Zomick, speaking as a Teaneck resident and not as a member of the Teaneck planning board, said jokingly, “So far, the township has been accused of sleeping through fires, child molestation and Nazism.” Lawrence Borger, a Teaneck resident with several children attending schools near the railroad tracks, indicated that he was happy with the idea of a development for rental apartments in the area, because there is a great need in the community for apartments so that residents can have a choice if they want to move to a smaller residence. He also expressed concern that he was directly approached with literature at the meeting and asked to wear a sticker and advocate against AvalonBay, and he questioned the legality of obvious lobbying in such close proximity to the meeting.

Two residents who are eying retirement discussed the need to have new apartments developed so they won’t have to leave town when they are no longer able to take care of their properties. They also indicated a strong wish for tax relief.

Mayor Lizette Parker, who said she was opposed to the rezoning on labor grounds related to AvalonBay, and because she thought affordable housing requirements had not been properly addressed, added unequivocally that she was not opposed to the project on safety grounds. Councilman Jason Castle, who also opposed the rezoning, stated that he was not opposed to development and said that he welcomed AvalonBay to Teaneck. His reasoning for opposing the rezoning was primarily safety questions at the site.

Jonnie Sofer, a Teaneck resident, asked where Councilman Alan Sohn was, who turned out to be the only council member who never expressed an opinion on the rezoning. “I am a little affronted as to why he’s not here this evening,” she said. Castle later explained that Sohn had just had a grandchild born and was at the moment flying to Israel. He did not return requests from the Jewish Link asking for his opinion on the matter.

In the end, with a vote of four to two, the property was rezoned for multi-family housing.

In an email to the council on Wednesday by resident Yocheved Turk, she admonished the council for what she viewed as minimizing resident comments. “I sincerely hope that the council will address them, and not dismiss them, as one council member glibly did last night, as the complaints of someone who is against progress. Such condescending verbiage does nothing to promote dialogue or trust. If this town doesn’t wish to regret last night’s vote as pure folly, it must work hard to make sure that the new project complies with all safety standards that are necessary to ensure the health and well-being of its residents and the surrounding community.”

By Elizabeth Kratz

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