Block 179 Lot 32 Project Development History

  • 1986

    In 1986, West Essex Highlands, Inc. purchased Watchung Mountain’s Second Ridge and Canoe Brook headwaters from Freygang & Company for $7,586,328.  The seller was a partnership owned by the family of the founder and former CEO of Allied Signal. 
    The site is now identified as Block 179 Lot 32 in Township of West Orange.   

  • 1989 - 1999

    In 1989, 50 acres of the lowlands absorbed development of 300 condo units called West Essex Highlands; the property is now owned by West Essex Condo Association. 
    In 1999, this project was followed by the construction of 70 single-family homes called The Grande at Pleasantdale Chateau. 

  • 2004

    In 2004, a Plan to build 136 single family homes was proposed.  On March 2, 2004, West Orange approved Zoning Ordinance 1934-04 and entered into a Developer’s agreement with West Essex Highlands Inc.

    This Ordinance amended Block 179 Lot 32 zoning to include R-2 and R-3, specifically prohibited cluster housing such as multi-family or townhouse development, and preserved 25 acres on the east face ridgeline of Second Watchung Mountain as “Natural Open Space” by permanent deed restriction.

    The Plan was opposed by West Essex Citizens Against Rezoning Excess - WECARE – a group of homeowners in the West Essex Highlands and The Grande – organized and led by Paul Tractenberg.  Another homeowner group, Essex Fells Homeowners Association (EFHOA) - led by Dr. Leon Smith - filed suit in Essex County Law Division for impermissible contract zoning and violations of Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL).  

  • 2004 - 2005

    In 2004 and 2005, the Developer executed two Settlement Agreements with both neighborhood groups to end opposition.  In each agreement, the Developer conveyed perpetual deed restrictions that run with the land, granting express limits over Block 179 Lot 32 to private property owners, subject to Ordinance 1934-04.  The limits conveyed straddle private property and town borders.   

    Ordinance 1934-04 §23(2) states:  “Attached cluster housing such as multi-family or townhouse development is specifically prohibited use on this property.”   The Master Plan Re-Examination and Legislative History for rezoning under Ordinance 1934-04 buttress recommendations to the site “… such as the incorporation of residential buffer strips and prohibition of new cluster development adjacent to existing cluster development.”  

  • 2006

    In 2006, the Developer’s plan was defeated at West Orange Planning Board by 5-2 vote. After Plan was denied, West Orange Town Council commissioned an appraisal with an eye to preserving the entire 120 acres as Open Space.  Preservation was supported by the Trust for Public Land and others. 

    When West Orange refused to provide a copy of valuation to the public, Paul Tractenberg sued the Township under the Open Public Records Act.  In 2008, NJ Superior Court ordered unredacted release of the appraisal.   Later that year, the sub-prime mortgage banking and real estate markets collapsed.  The final act of preservation never materialized.  We would not be here today if this final task was completed. 

    Rights conveyed by Developer remain unrecorded on deed to Block 179 Lot 32.  Since any title search reflects nothing, subsequent homeowners are unaware of property rights acquired that run with their land.  

    Contract rights in Settlement Agreements precede and are in conflict with:  i) Developer’s 2016 intervention in Fair Share Housing Corp litigation;  ii) 2017 Mt Laurel court order;  (iii) 2020 Court and West Orange Town Council approved three-party settlement agreement, and; iv) IH-1 rezoning (Ordinance 2614-20, §25-19). 

  • 2020

    On April 6 and 14, 2020 at the start of Covid lockdown, West Orange Town Council introduced and approved a Settlement Agreement between West Orange /Developer /Highlands Condo Assn (via Zoom).  This agreement specifically exempted municipal Tree, Natural Features, and Steep Slope ordinances.

    On October 20, 2020, IH-1 zoning was approved to further exempt Block 179 Lot 32 “… from all bulk, design, and environmental regulations of the West Orange Land Use Regulations Ordinance.
    - §25-19. IH-1 (INCLUSIONARY HOUSING) DISTRICT [Added 10-20-2020 by Ord. No. 2614-20]  

  • 2022

    In 2022, the West Orange Steep Slope ordinance was amended in response to the collapse of a Northfield Avenue residential building built on a steep slope (§ 25-28 STEEP SLOPE AND NATURAL FEATURES ORDINANCE).  On May 10, 2023, at an informational meeting convened by the West Orange Mayor, Township officials publicly stated neither steep slope ordinance applies to the current project, public safety principles notwithstanding.  This stance awaits challenge and final determination. 

  • 2023

    If proposed Plan proceeds, more residential units will exist on the West Orange side of a
    60 acre municipal border than in the entire two square miles of Essex Fells Borough.  

    In July 2023 WeCare NJ Corp was organized as a 501(c)4 not-for-profit to fulfill this mission:  

      • Spotlight and Prevent Public Safety Risk, Natural Resource Desecration, and Community Impact in Four Towns
      • Enforce Municipal Land Use Laws, Environmental Regulations, and Prior Settlement Agreements
      • Dedicate to Open Space for Public Benefit Last Acres of Block 179 Lot 32 on Watchung Second Ridge