by FF3, Lead Editor
To Whom It May Concern,
I am going to assume you are either the owner of one or both of the properties around the Soho Hospital (the owners of both properties have the same address in Bethlehem, PA) or that you are associated with them.
As a local community watchdog/civic activist, I am always on guard about new websites/social media related to Belleville. This past December, I noticed that a Facebook account called “Belleville Belleville” began following Belleville Watch’s Facebook page. Noting the odd name, I searched and found the account linked with a page called “Real Growth For Belleville.”
I quickly looked up that page and found the posts on it were focused almost entirely on the property of the former Soho Hospital — also known as the Essex County Geriatric Hospital — and the open property around it, known as the “Great Lawn.” The posts seem to advocate for the property’s complete development — mixed-use, residential, etc.
This open letter’s introduction leads me to write this open letter to you, or for whomever you are speaking: the need to preserve Belleville — its people, its history, its identity as a small suburban town — outweighs your desire to develop property designated as “open space.”
Let’s start with the content on your page. One post claims that, if development were allowed on the Great Lawn properties that it would lead to “800+” estimated jobs; that’s a bit misleading. Yes, construction workers would be employed in building the development, but those jobs would end once construction was finished. If mixed-residential — ostensibly with commercial or retail on the first floor — were included in the development, it might create a few jobs, but certainly not the 800-plus claimed in your post.
Another post claims that Belleville already has much green and open space, showing a satellite image of land near the hospital/Great Lawn area. The image showed Belleville Park, Hendricks Field, and the Forest Hill Field Club. Belleville Park is small, Hendricks Field is a county-owned public golf course and Forest Hill is a private club. Aside of Belleville Park, the areas mentioned in the post aren’t open to the public, unless one has a membership to the field club or wants to pay fees to play at the county golf course.
Bottom line: the arguments you make in your posts are an epic fail.
Your desire to develop the Great Lawn may be understandable, but Belleville needs to preserve as much space as possible, especially with a mayor and a few councilmembers hell-bent on developing Belleville into another Hoboken.
Great Lawn Property Has Not Been Maintained
Something tells me “Real Growth For Belleville” is essentially a way to get public support and sympathy for developing the Great Lawn property, now that the Township is seriously considering using powers of eminent domain to acquire the property, ostensibly to preserve the property as open space.
Again, assuming you are the property owner, I’ll be blunt: With the various states of neglect in which the Great Lawn has been left over the years, the Township using eminent domain is reasonable.
According to njparcels.com, both properties comprising the Great Lawn were last purchased in 1999, at $30,000 and $115,000 (not terribly costly, even back in 1999.) I have lived in Belleville for just short of 25 years, and in that time, I have driven past those properties many times, in all kinds of weather and during all times of the year. I’ve seen the lawn overgrown to the point that I’ve seen rodents running in and out of it. Many times, after snowstorms, I have seen the sidewalks running past the property minimally cleaned, if at all. I know for a fact the Township has done a “Clean and Lean” (landscaping the property and then putting a lien on the property for services rendered) several times. Sadly, it seems whoever owns these properties — if not you — does little to nothing to maintain them, and it has been so for many years.
I am not a fan of eminent domain. It’s wide open to abuse and thanks to the Supreme Court of the United States, it is a vehicle by which cities and towns can transfer private ownership of property from one owner to another if the property needs to be redeveloped in the name of “economic prosperity.” I believe eminent domain needs to be used only in the rarest of circumstances, namely in the public interest. Preserving the Great Lawn as open space in Belleville is most certainly in the public interest.
Some of Belleville’s Elected Officials Are Hell-bent On Development
In case you didn’t know, Belleville is a small suburban town — 3.34 square miles. It has a population of about 38,000 people, which equals about 11,000 people per square mile. Belleville is one of the most densely populated towns in Essex County. This all translates into a lot of people, a lot of vehicular traffic, and few public spaces or parks for people to enjoy. Improvements were recently made to Clearman Field on Union Avenue and improvements are underway at the athletic field at Belleville High School, but those are owned by the Belleville Board of Education; they are not municipal parks or open property.
In 2018, the “BetterBelleville” slate of candidates won election to the Town Council, one being elected mayor. Mayor Michael Melham stated early on developing and re-developing Belleville was one of his highest priorities. Today — thanks to a new, permissive master plan and the continual gutting of responsibilities for the Zoning Board of Adjustment — Belleville will soon be home to more than 1500 new residential rental units, which will likely lead to more people, more vehicles, and more stress on the town’s aging infrastructure. Despite all this, municipal property taxes have still increased.
Mayor Melham has publicly stated the Town Council is committed to preserving the Great Lawn property as open space. One of the mayor’s planning board appointees has stated the town isn’t interested in developing the property. The mayor is a master of spin, but Belleville residents hope he is sincere in this commitment.
Belleville residents want lower property taxes, better services and a great town to live in, but not at the cost of having every last inch of town developed.
Whether Privately or Publicly Owned, The “Great Lawn” Must Be Preserved
In closing, the years of neglect — or, at best, the irregular maintenance — of the Great Lawn has led the Township of Belleville to consider using eminent domain to acquire those properties. It’s understandable that the property owner(s) may be unhappy with that prospect, but it can’t be said that the Township hasn’t given the owners multiple opportunities to set things right.
Whether you are the property owner or you advocate on behalf of the owner, you face two choices. Either better maintain the property and give up your desire to develop it, or submit to the inevitability of the Township paying you fair market value for the property in order for it to become public property. The choice is ultimately yours.
Frank F. Fleischman III (FF3)