By Brian Quinlan
With battles over eminent domain raging across the country, Clifton businessman William Van Ness found a novel way to foil a local school board’s effort to seize some land he owned near his plant. He hired a public relations firm and launched a $65,000 media campaign to claim the industrial area in which the site is located was too polluted, noisy and full of traffic for a new middle school the board wants built.
The campaign paid off when Clifton voters overwhelmingly rejected a $49 million bond issue to build the school next to the Van Ness Plastics factory, which makes kitty litter pans, food dishes and other pet products (See NJBIZ Aug. 22, 2005).
In moves that could be a model for other eminent domain dissidents, Van Ness sent out mailings before the Jan. 24 vote, wrote op-ed pieces in local papers and attended more than a dozen public meetings to lobby for his land. His attention-grabbing campaign led to a heavy turnout in which nearly 9,000 voters cast their ballots in a town with a population of some 80,000.
Voters nixed the new school by a margin of 58% to 42%.
Denyse Dabrowski, a spokesperson for The Marcus Group, a p.r. firm that Van Ness retained, says part of the school building would have been just 30 feet from the factory and close to its loading docks. “People are passionate about this issue,” Dabrowski says.
“Obviously it’s frustrating,” says Joseph Klodziej, president of the Clifton School Board. “On top of being able to spend a lot more money than the school district was, he didn’t have to be completely honest.” Klodziej says the Van Ness camp exaggerated the environmental and traffic concerns.
Klodziej says it was difficult fighting Van Ness, who wasn’t bound by the same advertising rules or spending limits as the school board, which is barred by law from spending tax dollars to influence a vote.
Van Ness paid Verizon Wireless $1.1 million for the site in 2004 and plans to build a 98-car parking lot for his 256-employees. Dabrowski says the factory owner has spent $300,000 on site preparations.
The parcel was one of three on which the school for more than 1,500 pupils was to have been constructed. The school board last year purchased one of the sites from Mayer Textiles, which has an office there, and has been negotiating with Mayer to acquire the other site.
The proposal called for the board to build part of the new school from the ground up and retrofit part of the old Mayer factory.
Klodziej says recent environmental studies have shown the land to be suitable for a school. A district elementary schools is located two-thirds of a mile away on Brighton Road.
“Anyone who is a Clifton resident knows that Brighton Road is essentially a country road compared to the other roads in Clifton,” Klodziej says. “Basically, [Van Ness’s] argument was that the site is not suitable for a school because he’s a bad neighbor and makes all this noise pollution and fumes.”
Klodziej says the vote was a strong indication that residents don’t want a school on the land. Nevertheless, he says the board “won’t rule out” trying to pass the referendum again. He notes that in 2004 voters approved a 500-pupil school facility on the Mayer Textiles site that the board went on to acquire. Plans for the school were later dropped.
“There’s no question that there’s a need for a new school and the board is going to go back to the drawing board to address other options,” Klodziej says. “But based on [the vote], I don’t think the board members are going to be willing to put this referendum up again.”
In an opinion piece Van Ness submitted to The Herald News, he argued that the proposal would violate zoning laws, drive business out of the area and jeopardize students’ health. “Must students dodge trucks and freight trains on the way to school because the school board refused to follow Clifton zoning laws?” Van Ness wrote.
Dabrowski says the school board can put the referendum before town voters two more times. If it’s rejected, she says the board can still petition the state to overturn the vote.