The Hoboken City Council approved, in an 8-0-1 vote on Wednesday, the use of eminent domain to try to acquire northern waterfront property that was recently purchased by NY Waterway from Union Dry Dock & Repair Co.
NY Waterway, the company that runs the commuter ferries from Hoboken and Jersey City to New York, had completed its purchase of the long-running ship repair site two weeks ago, intending to use it to repair and maintain its ferries. But Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer would like to acquire it for parkland.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the council also approved of a $5.3 million appraisal of property owned by Academy Bus in the southern part of town, to expand the Southwest Park there.
Both moves are intended to create open space in this dense mile-square city.
Waterfront park, or ferry repair facility?
The Union Dry Dock site has been a working shipyard for about 130 years. Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. has entertained offers for the land for some time. In October, the City Council voted to introduce an eminent domain ordinance but tabled final readings until after the mayoral election, to avoid politicizing the vote.
Two weeks ago, they were informed that a subsidiary for NY Waterway had purchased the property from Union Dry Dock & Repair Co. for $11.5 million with the intention of using it for ferry repairs and maintenance.
NJ Transit advised the city at the same time that they will be entering into an agreement with NY Waterway for the option to purchase the property as NY Waterway is integral part of transporting people to and from the city.
Chairman of NY Waterway Armand Pohan, spoke at the council meeting, stating the costs of relocating the newly acquired ferry repair site to another location would be expensive.
“The power of condemnation is a formidable tool. It gives you the right to tell a property owner, ‘Get out. For this, however, you must pay,’ ” he said. “You are not talking about relocating a pizzeria. You are talking about a unique piece of property and use of which, incidentally, must be located on the water.”
“Now you must identify another site for us to relocate and pay the costs of that relocation,” he added. “Good luck to you, because after looking for the past 10 years, I can safely say that there is no other suitable deep-water site anywhere between Fort Lee and lower Jersey City.”
He added that roughly 2,000 Hoboken residents use the ferries and that they are losing their current repair site in Weehawken owned by Lennar Properties, which plans to develop the site into residences.
He added that if they have to move somewhere farther away, they may have to increase ferry fares.
Residents Cheryl Fallick and Mary Ondrejka asked the council not to approve the use of eminent domain.
Fallick said that although she is not a fan of eminent domain she would like to see a continuous waterfront walkway. (By state law, anyone developing along the Hudson River from Bayonne to the George Washington Bridge) has to contribute to an existing 21-mile pedestrian/bike path.) She also said she’s concerned about the city’s budget and what the cost would be to buy the land.
Several other members of the community agreed with the idea of keeping the waterfront public.
“I urge you to preserve our waterfront: it’s our cherished asset here in Hoboken,” said uptown resident Bonnie Murray. “I normally am not a fan of eminent domain, the implication it has on all our taxes. I also don’t like the idea of taking someone else’s property, but in this particular instance, I think it’s a logical step.”
She also brought up concerns that Waterway’s use of the land could add to pollution and Sinatra Drive traffic.
Carrow Thibault of the Fund for a Better Waterfront, a Hoboken-based non-profit activist group, said that five years ago, NJ Transit tried to acquire the land.
In 2012, NY Waterway and NJ Transit said they hoped to purchase it to move NY Waterway’s ferry maintenance and fueling station there. At the time, Mayor Dawn Zimmer protested the idea in a letter to the transit agencies. The letter went unanswered for months, but after the FBW caught wind of the idea and the Reporter subsequently wrote a story about it, the agencies dropped out, informing the city they would not move forward with the project.
“Nothing has changed since our protests in 2012,” Thibault said last week. “The current New York Waterway-NJ Transit proposal is still an alarming and dreadful plan.”
He mentioned NJ Transit because the city announced the agency may purchase the site from NY Waterway.
The plan is to use the site for ferry repair and maintenance and refueling, according to Pohan.
Thibault said it’s alarming “not because of its immediate proximity to a residential community, but because it will continue to be a crude blemish on one of Hoboken’s most beautiful places.”
NJ Transit also has the power to condemn properties by eminent domain, according to state statutes, and could acquire the property. In fact, NJ Transit’s power of eminent domain could surpass that of the city’s – so if the city persists, NJT could fight them.
“I urge you to preserve our waterfront.” –Bonnie Murray
For Monday’s vote, Councilman and Mayor-Elect Ravi Bhalla voted “present.”
According to his spokesperson, Rob Horowitz, this is due to a possible conflict of interest.
“There is an existing NJ Transit Right-of-Way that may have to be dealt with as part of the resolution for this property,” said Horowitz. “Since the law firm that employs Councilman Bhalla has represented NJ Transit, in an abundance of caution, he decided not to vote on the matter.”
He added “Bhalla himself has never represented NJ Transit, and since he is not an equity partner, he did not and does not personally benefit in any way from the firm’s representation of NJ Transit, which are on personal injury cases having nothing to do with Hoboken politics and government. As mayor, he will serve full-time and not practice law.”
According to the spokesman, Bhalla is in favor of turning the property into the park and “the potential to use eminent domain gives the city some leverage. Whether or not it will end up being the appropriate tool to use in this circumstance remains to be seen. He plans to work constructively with NY Waterway.”
According to Horowitz, Bhalla is in favor of turning the property into a Waterfront Park and will explore all potential possibilities to do so as mayor.
Council approves $5.3M for parkland
The council unanimously approved a $5.3 million appraisal for about an acre of property currently owned by Academy Bus, which the city wants to add to the Southwest Resiliency Park. The appraisal doesn’t mean the price is agreed to by both parties, but may help clarify further negotiations for the land.
The city wants about an acre of the land bordered by Paterson Plank Road, Harrison Street, the light rail tracks, and Observer Highway. It abuts the new, small triangle-shaped park that opened earlier this year.
Once the city officially notifies Academy Bus of the appraisal, Academy Bus will respond with their own appraisal. In the past they have said the property is worth close to $13 million.
The city must wait 20 days before acting on the approved ordinance, so they won’t contact Academy officially with the appraisal until December.
This mandatory waiting time allows citizens to enact the power of referendum, which is the power to approve or reject at the polls any ordinance submitted by the council to the voters.
The council rejected a resolution asking them to declare the ordinance an emergency, which would have allowed them to waive the 20-day waiting period with a 4-5 vote.
Councilmen Jim Doyle, Peter Cunningham, Michael Russo, and Bhalla voted to approve the resolution to waive the wait, while Council members Tiffanie Fisher, Jen Giattino, Ruben Ramos, Michael DeFusco, and David Mello voted against it.
Resident Mary Ondrejka spoke out against declaring it an emergency. “I resent this very much,” she said. “Using the word emergency. That’s deceptive.”
“There is no emergency,” Council President Jen Giattino agreed.
According to the city’s attorney on the matter, Edward Buzak, the emergency would just allow them to present the appraisal sooner, receiving their appraisal more quickly and continuing with negotiations.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.