Op-Ed: A Dangerous Law for South Orange

A local resident weighs in on a law that would affect SO and Seton Hall

The New Jersey Senate has passed a bill and the Assembly is considering the bill to exempt private universities, such as Seton Hall, from complying with municipal zoning.  South Orange residents should immediately call on their Assembly Members to work to reject this misguided legislation.

Based on a 1972 case (Rutgers v. Peluso, 60 N.J. 142) that held that Rutgers, because it is a state facility, is immune from local ordinances, the bill would grant Seton Hall a similar status, so that South Orange would have virtually no ability to constrain the university's building and its expansion into any neighborhood it chose.

The bill is especially dangerous for South Orange residents. That is not only because a private entity's interests are quite different from a governmental entity's interests, but because New Brunswick, the municipality involved in Rutgers v Peluso, is a far different type of municipality than South Orange. The impact of an almost unfettered ability to use, to build, to expand without regard to our carefully considered Zoning Ordinance, Master Plan, and Smart Growth Plan, which were crafted after the input not only of retained experts, but of members of the public and municipal boards familiar with South Orange, is incalculable.

Of perhaps greater importance is that although the court in Rutgers v Peluso was dealing with construction on the university's campus, the proposed statute is not so limited; a university could build almost anywhere; it could create uses in zones where such uses are prohibited, and buildings with physical characteristics not permitted by the ordinance, provided only that what it did was not deemed "arbitrary or unreasonable." Even though South Orange has established a University Zone for Seton Hall, by this legislation all of South Orange might, in effect, become a university zone.

Universities such as Seton Hall already have a favored status under the Land Use Law.  In applying to a Zoning Board of Adjustment for variances, universities do not even have to establish the "Positive Criteria"—that what they are proposing would benefit the public—proof that is otherwise required of an applicant for a variance.  That significant advantage should be enough of an advantage, especially when measured against the legitimate interests of the residents of a municipality.

The language of the decision in Rutgers v Peluso demonstrates that the court was cognizant of the dramatic financial burden on municipalities such as South Orange that large tax-exempt installations create.  The court said, of course, that relief on that score can only come from the legislature.  Here, the legislature would be acting not to ease the financial burden on towns like ours, but to increase it by allowing private universities to build and expand, without significant oversight by the municipality, taking more and more property off the tax rolls.

Just as there are state hospitals that would be immune under Rutgers v Pelosi from local ordinances, private hospitals and other institutional uses could be the next ones to be granted such immunity. 

Urge your Assembly Members work against this proposed law:

Mila M. Jasey, 15 Valley Street, Maplewood New Jersey 07079, Telephone: (973) 762-1886, and

John F. McKeon, Jr. 4 Sloan Street, Suite D & Suite E, South Orange, New Jersey 07079,  Telephone: (973) 275-1113.

You can also contact them through http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/SelectRep.asp.

Bob Adler

South Orange


Jerry Soffer July 09, 2012 at 11:24 AM
Though I'm a maplewood resident, I wish you luck in opposing this statue. Allowing any private entity to violate local land use laws invites abuse by that entity. This is especially true when the unleashed private entity wields the kind of wealth that a private university has at its disposal. The SHU law school in Newark is an extraordinary facility. It may be located at a site that's beneficial to Newark, and it may be in conformance with Newark's land use ordinances (I say "may" because I don't know if either is true), but it definitely shows the extraordinary wealth and power SHU weilds. I wonder which elected officials sponsored this legislation, and who funds their campaign coffers.
Walter Zimmerman July 09, 2012 at 02:21 PM
I'm very grateful to read this unsettling article, and will use the information as I contact my Assembly Members. Because I live in the neighboring Tuxedo Park area of South Orange, I already know of the University's interest in spreading itself out into nearby portions of the South Orange community, without regard for possible impact on property values, or on the lives of neighborhood residents. How would you like an ROTC office next door to your house? And as the article points out, there's not even a discernible tax advantage, to be used as a thin excuse for permitting such invasive maneuvers on the part of the University. Thanks again, to the author. Now I've got some phone calls to make...
Michael Goldberg July 09, 2012 at 06:56 PM
FYI, the South Orange Board of Trustees has a resolution on the agenda tonight to oppose these bills : http://southorange.no-ip.org/weblink7/DocView.aspx?id=105457 However, as the orginal poster suggests, it would be helpful to have people also contacting our representatives in Trenton.
The Hamburglar July 09, 2012 at 10:02 PM
I'm far removed from law school days, but this sounds like there's a First Amendment Establishment Clause claim. Seton Hall's a religious affiliated university and to exempt them from zoning laws raises an establishment clause issue.
Erik van de Pol July 20, 2012 at 06:21 PM
The APA has a petition online in opposition to this misguided bill. Please take a minute to read it and take action. It's important. Thank you. http://www.change.org/petitions/oppose-new-jersey-assembly-bill-no-2586-s-1534


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