Anyone who’s heard a worker’s jackhammer at dawn or had a neighbor putting an addition on their home knows the inconvenience of living near construction. Infrastructure projects are inevitable and necessary. They make for a modern and safer world. But those benefits do not come until construction is finished. Until then, those living closest to the project endure neighborhoods that turn noisy and dirty. Residents close to the Bayonne Bridge construction have complained of excessive noise, lead chips falling in their yards, and a slew of other hazards that accompany construction, especially long-term projects such as the bridge and the Turnpike.
Another pitfall of living adjacent to an enormous bridge-construction project is the devaluation of property. With the bridge under construction since May 2013 and the Port Authority extending its completion date to mid-2019 from an original projection of 2017, property values near the construction site have dropped temporarily until construction is finished, according to city tax assessor Joe Nichols.
As a result, residents have been appealing their property assessments and winning a lower tax bill, although at least one city official, Councilman Gary La Pelusa, says he’s concerned about the lost tax revenue.
Nichols explained, “In 2014, the issue was raised [by residents]. In 2015, several of the people involved [filed] tax appeals which caused me to look at whether it affected value. Every one of the tax appeals that was done resulted in a reduction.” He said that 135 properties were reassessed with an average 20-peercent reduction in owed property tax, amounting to $260,000.
When Third Ward Councilman Gary La Pelusa sees that number, he sees lost revenue at a time when the city needs it most. “It takes away from the overall budget,” he said. “It’s potential tax money that we’re not going to get anymore.” He pointed to the city’s challenge of avoiding a substantial budget hole by the end of June. “I’m not looking for anyone to get a tax break,” he said. “We’re facing a $15 million budget hole. There’s a two percent increase for the town in the next budget.”
He also suggested it is unfair to residents in his ward affected by turnpike construction who did not receive reassessments, but Nichols said, “The turnpike condemned some residential property nearby, and those residents were compensated.” He also said at least “two properties directly adjacent to the turnpike” may get reassessed in the future. His office received 1,395 property tax appeals in 2015, and 900 so far in 2016. They’re halfway through the pile, meaning there may be reassessments still to come for a select few residents in the Third Ward.
“If they were to pay the full tax while this is going on, then they’re subsidizing the rest of the tax base. And I have a problem with that.” – Joe Nichols
Between a bridge and a hard place
Even though Bergen Point residents are getting a break on their property tax bill, that doesn’t always make up for the constant disturbance brought by construction. Mike, who only wants his first name used, lives 200 feet from the bridge. He said, “It’s been an inconvenience for the last three years. I got home last night at 1 o’clock in the morning and they’re drilling there.”
Jo, a resident on Juliette Street who preferred not to use her last name, said that she would gladly trade her tax savings for a garden in her backyard. “Because of the pollution I can’t plant in my garden. I’m afraid the soil is contaminated,” she said while what she believes were lead chips were scattered on her porch. “Leave it there,” she said. “I want the Port Authority to see it.”
“They’re giving us a little relief because of what we’re going through,” Jo said, adding that she and other residents sometimes feel helpless when the bridge project disrupts their lifestyles. “The pollution is all over the cars and on the street, everything you touch,” she said. “And we’re breathing it in. So our voice goes into cyber space because they don’t do anything about it. First of all, what could they do about it? They’re going to stop work on the bridge, or not repair it?”
The tax reassessments for properties affected by long-term construction projects are only temporary, and a “unique situation,” according to Nichols. “This is an external obsolescence,” he said. “Some external factors that the property owner cannot control affect the property value.” Instead of property value reflecting the neighborhood, it is reflecting a temporary construction project. “It’s a rare thing,” he said.
La Pelusa and Nichols disagree over what is fair. La Pelusa’s version sees the rest of the city, including his ward, wrongfully shouldering a larger tax burden. “Every taxpayer should be angry when they hear that only a select few are getting a tax break and then they have to pay a tax increase,” La Pelusa said. Nichols, on the other hand, sees injustice in allowing residents to pay property taxes they do not owe. He said, “If the sale value of the house went down as a result of this construction, if they were to pay the full tax while this is going on, then they’re subsidizing the rest of the tax base. And I have a problem with that.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.