Petition Drive Scuttles Verona’s Purchase Of Synagogue Property

By on May 31, 2017

Congregation Beth AhmTownship Manager Matt Cavallo notified members of the Town Council and Verona Rescue Squad today that he will be submitting an ordinance for Monday night’s Council meeting to rescind the township’s proposed purchase of 56 Grove Avenue, the home of Congregation Beth Ahm. The Council had unanimously authorized the purchase of the property for $900,000 at its May 1 meeting and was considering relocating the Verona Rescue Squad to the site. 

The action comes in the wake of a petition drive mounted by five Verona residents who live near the synagogue: Patricia and Salvatore Calandra, Thomas and Denise Bastanza, and William Battersby. Carrie Ford, a lawyer who ran unsuccessfully for Town Council in May, acted as the notary public on the petition drive. All had spoken in opposition to the purchase at the May 1 Town Council meeting. 

Verona is organized as a so-called Faulkner Act municipality and an obscure provision allows residents of these kinds of municipalities to challenge Council decisions through a petition. The petition on the synagogue was submitted to the township on Wednesday May 24, and has been certified as valid by the township’s attorney, Brian Aloia. That left Verona’s municipal government with two options: Hold a referendum on the petition, or adopt an ordinance rescinding the purchase. The referendum would have needed to be done in a special election, which would have cost taxpayers $20,000. It also would not have been possible to hold a referendum in time to meet the synagogue’s needs for a speedy closing on the property.

“I want to express to the Rescue Squad my regrets that we cannot proceed with the proposed relocation,” Cavallo wrote in an email to Rescue Squad Captain Frederick Tempesta sent today, “and that I personally believe that the location would have been a great spot, centrally located, and would have been a great asset to the community.” The town has been searching for a new location for both the Rescue Squad and Firehouse #2 for 18 months because neither property now meets the needs of its first responders.

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Congregation Beth Ahm, which has been part of Verona for 80 years, is merging with another synagogue out of town and put its building on the market in January. “We are back on the market and hoping someone will buy the building,” Congregation Beth Ahm President Debbie Lawrence said on Wednesday afternoon. “We are disappointed that the town will not be able to purchase the building because we thought it was a win-win for everyone.”

The asking price for the property is $1 million. Houses of worship from outside Verona were interested in the property, but it could also be purchased by a developer. It is zoned residential and could be used for single-family housing or multi-family development, although the latter would require Board of Adjustment or Planning Board approval. Cavallo said at the May 1 meeting that if the property were sold to another house of worship, it could exacerbate parking problems in the area, particularly if the new congregation has Sunday worship. There is a Jehovah’s Witness congregation on Personette Avenue and the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit on Gould Street. The synagogue property only has 11 parking spaces.

“We’re very pleased with the council’s decision and we are grateful that they listened to our concerns and responded with respect and understanding,” said Battersby by email. “We look forward to attending future town council meetings and encourage all of our Verona neighbors to do so.” The petition organizers collected about 250 signatures, 219 of which were found to be valid by Verona’s town clerk. (Petition signers had to be registered to vote in Verona).

“I am pleased with the outcome,” said Tom Bastanza. “It confirms how privileged we are to live in a democracy, that we actually have the right to petition.” Reaffirming the support of the Rescue Squad that he voiced at the Council meeting, Bastanza added, “The number of signatures that we got in such a short time is a testament that this was not an appropriate use of the property.”

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The petition drive is an unwitting lesson in the importance of voting in state Assembly elections. Under the rules governing Faulkner Act towns, the number of signatures needed on a petition drive must equal at least 15% of the total votes cast in the last Assembly election. The last election occurred in 2015, an off-year election with no other major contest on the ballot, and only 1,191 of Verona’s then 10,268 registered voters cast ballots. As a result, only 179 signatures were needed for the petition. By contrast, had the petition total been determined by the ballots cast in the most recent presidential election, some 1,200 signatures would have been needed.

MyVeronaNJ.com obtained the signed petitions through an Open Records Act request. They are organized into five PDFs, and you can view the signatures on each here: Petition 1, Petition 2, Petition 3, Petition 4 and Petition 5

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Copyright 2017 MyVeronaNJ


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12 Comments

  1. H. Hansen

    May 31, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    Just because you have the legal right to publish the names and addresses of the petition signers doesn’t mean that you should.

    Ask yourself: does publishing these names and addresses add value to the news reporting to justify compromising information people consider private?

    I question your journalistic ethics in publishing the names and addresses, and frankly, it smells of bias against the petitioners.

    I urge other readers who are offended by this to respond in kind.

  2. Gregory D Donohue

    May 31, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    Why is it “an unwitting lesson In voting in state Assembly elections”? That implies a bias in the reporting. An obvious negative connotation of the outcome. It undermines the credibility/legitimacy of the petition. It is hard to overlook the invoking of opinion in that subtle but clear statement by the writer. Hoping that was not the intent.

  3. Ben Blinder

    May 31, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    I applaud the coverage of this important issue – great reporting! – but I am extremely distressed at the shortsighted NIMBY attitude behind this petition. A new home for the Rescue Squad is not only necessary but will be beneficial to all residents, and instead of protesting against it I hoped our neighbors would have chosen to work WITH the Rescue Squad and the Council to address all concerns and make it the safest and best-designed facility that it could be. Our Rescue Squad volunteers deserve nothing less, and instead they got the shaft. It’s so much easier to complain and push the problem to someone else than it is to be part of the solution, and the folks who signed this petition (many of whom live nowhere near the Beth Ahm site) did nothing to help the Rescue Squad.

  4. Virginia Citrano

    May 31, 2017 at 9:34 pm

    Tom Bastanza, one of the organizers of the petition drive, makes an apt point that a key feature of democracy is that we can often change things by means of a petition to government. But should the signature threshold for a valid petition be based on participation in an election, which fluctuates substantially in Verona depending on what’s on the ballot? Or should it be based on something more constant, like total population or total registered voters? Which would be more representative of the will of the people? Opportunities for petitions could be lost if they happen to follow an election with a high turnout.

  5. Christina Ford

    May 31, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    I agree with H. Hanson. This is another biased article from myverona.
    The petition process is not “obscure” as described my Ms. Citrano. It has been done in many towns for many ordinances. It is and has been the law. If Ms. Citrano was unbiased, she would have described in her previous articles regarding this ordinance how the residents of the town can continue to oppose the purchase via petition within 20 days of the ordinance’s publication. Instead, she characterizes the petition process as obscure and attempts to shame the people who signed the petition by publishing their names and scolding people for not voting.
    Community members taking an active part in local governerment should be applauded. They took action and had their voices heard following the rule of law.

    In full disclosure, I am a licensed attorney and also did some notarizing for this petition. I fully support the rescue squad but also support the residents of Verona in having their voices heard, complete transparency of local government and the right to petition the town council.

    Christina Ford

  6. Lisa

    May 31, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    I agree why are the names and addresses published ? I did not realize my signature waived my privacy rights

  7. Jess McGrath

    May 31, 2017 at 10:16 pm

    A few comments:

    * First, for Ben Blinder – I think that was the point of the petition to begin with. Let’s all work together to find a spot for the Rescue Squad that makes sense for the community. My sense is it’s generally acknowledged that their current situation is not sustainable. But the speed at which this purchase was being made – and the fact that there was no consideration given for neighborhood impact – makes it clear this was the wrong idea. We should not make decisions based on what benefits one group, with no concern for how others would be affected.

    * And lest we make this too much about the rescue squad, let’s not forget that council members have offered a variety of reasons for this purchase, including “maybe we’ll flip it”, “you never know if someone will bring LOW INCOME HOUSING into the area, we’d better buy it to control it”, and at the most recent meeting, as suggested by Mike Nochimson, maybe it would become “tennis courts”.

    * Like many of the other commenters, I too am bothered by the bias throughout this article – comments like “obscure provision” and “unwitting lesson”, for example. We should be encouraging participation in democracy, not taking an attitude of “Council knows what’s right”. Then there’s the altruism of the Council “saving us $20,000” by not deciding to go to referendum. The implication there being that, Council still thinks this is the right decision. And of course, the comments about another house of worship bringing more parking into the neighborhood. Considering the alternative in play – forgetting tennis courts – would have involved ambulances flying in and out at all hours, I hardly think an increase in parking woes one day a week was worth citing.

  8. Michael DeCheser

    June 1, 2017 at 8:57 am

    Is that site ideal? I don’t think so.
    I used to live on Personnette and think its great that the neighbors banded together and spoke up. The last thing that Personnette needs is more drivers speeding up and down the hill.
    If the author is correct in that the property is zoned residential, that would make the property pre-existing non-conforming use. My understanding of pre-existing non conforming use is that the Township would need to approve the use of the next occupant. The Rescue Squad would no doubt provide a community benefit, but how many cars/trucks would be parking there? There is plenty of Commercial zoning in Verona only a few blocks away on Bloomfield. They should find an as-of-right site.

  9. Virginia Citrano

    June 1, 2017 at 11:25 am

    Michael, the town manager discussed the availability and cost of other options at the May 1 Town Council meeting. Here is his PowerPoint and here is the video of the meeting. Please keep in mind that if an existing commercial property is used for the Rescue Squad, Verona would lose the property tax revenue that that property now produces. The Rescue Squad, like a house of worship, does not pay property taxes.

  10. Julie Parker

    June 1, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    Virginia, please keep in mind that returning the Personette property to a residential use would also return it to the tax rolls, somewhat offsetting taking a different property off the tax rolls for rescue squad use. (This could also be offset by returning the existing rescue squad property to the tax rolls. Thus, your assertion does not consider the full tax picture.) The reality is that Council took a decision to purchase the property, with an intended use in mind (as shown by tbeir PPT and the resulting assumptions in your article), but did not undertake associated impact studies. This is not merely a NIMBY issue given proximity to 3 town schools and the fact that the streets there already have a major safety problem due to speeding and numerous pedestrians. In addition, the property in issue is surrounded on all sides by homes, making more thorough evaluation of other, non-residential properties all the more compelling. None of this was covered by your article. The circumstances of this matter are an example of why the petition process is important as it brought previously ignored significant concerns to the forefront.

  11. Virginia Citrano

    June 2, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Thanks for your thoughts Julie. Yes, there were no formal impact studies as part of this Council’s decision; that would have been part of a subsequent Planning Board review which, like the Council meetings, has opportunity for public participation and discussions. As for the concerns about traffic and other issues, MyVeronaNJ noted that they were part of the public participation in the Council’s May 1 vote, which is linked to from this article. The full video of that meeting was also embedded in the same article. It shows many questions being asked and answered.

  12. Julie Parker

    June 2, 2017 at 11:48 am

    If it were really true that the “use” of the purchased property would be fully considered at the Planning Board level, there would be no message from the Twp Mngr “expressing regrets” to the Rescue Squad, and the article would not focus on the petition somehow thwarting relocation of the Rescue Squad. There clearly was a presumptive use in mind for that property, selected without reasonable evaluation of the impacts up front – you can’t have it both ways, focusing on that use in the article then claiming that wasn’t the intent as impacts would be considered at a later stage. There is a cost to the Town in that approach too! (Buy first, evaluate later)In any case, I can assure you that those who participated in the petition fully support relocating the Rescue Squad to a suitable location – for example, one that isn’t surrounded by houses, allows for pull through bays, and many other specifics beyond what could be included here. We appreciate the Town’s willingness to reconsider the purchase and consider our concerns.

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