The South Orange building at the center of a new discrimination claim against the township and PSE&G. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
A Morristown developer is suing South Orange and PSE&G, alleging the township and utility delayed her project for two years because she is a Black woman.
In a complaint filed Tuesday, Yayine Abeba Melaku, the developer, charges township officials violated New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination by refusing to extend to her waivers awarded to neighboring projects developed by white men, levying faulty fines against her, and foisting project requirements upon her that were stricter than those faced by white developers.
The filing accuses PSE&G of seeking $260,000 for the installation of an underground transformer to deliver electricity for the project, costs the complaint says the utility provider waived after another developer, who is white and male, requested the same service to an adjacent plot of land.
Neil Mullin, Melaku’s attorney, alleges an electrician working on the project reported that the PSE&G rep referred to his client as a “Black b****.”
“That maybe tells us a little bit about what the fellow thought,” said Mullin, who added his client never received an explanation for the about-face.
The building at the center of the lawsuit is on Second Street, near the town’s busy train station.
The suit says South Orange had waived a requirement that mandated underground transformers at an adjacent property but refused to extend that waiver to Melaku’s project. She alleges the utility offered similar services to a separate white developer in the township for just $29,000.
Melaku also claims that township officials lodged faulty fines against her project, issuing six tickets the plaintiff said were each dismissed. Despite that, she was told she must pay $75,000 in fines to receive a temporary certificate of occupancy.
Those fines were eventually reduced to $10,000. Though Melaku paid, she maintains the fines were unlawful.
The suit accuses South Orange building official Anthony Grenci of issuing a stop work order against the project that claimed it had never been inspected, though the property had, in fact, been inspected multiple times.
“She had all the paperwork for all the inspections. It was a complete lie, so here’s this white construction guy in charge of the town’s construction projects who doesn’t treat the white developers that way,” Mullin said.
Spokespeople for PSE&G did not return a request for comment, nor did South Orange village administrator Julie Doran.
The suit charges the municipality denied Melaku’s project a tax abatement — despite regularly issuing such abatements to other projects — and increased the lot’s property taxes while leaving levies on projects headed by white developers untouched.
Melaku claims the township ordered stricter inspections of sidewalks for her project than was regular, saying a contractor hired to set the sidewalk told her it was unusual for officials to inspect the work in person and said approvals were normally issued with just a photograph of the work.
She also charges the township sought to force the installation of tree grates and pits, requirements not levied upon other projects in the township.
The delays were so severe that Melaku abandoned plans to develop two other South Orange lots purchased in 2019 and 2020. Those lots have since been put up for sale.
“We’re seeking big economic damages. She lost millions of dollars by having a two-year delay. That project sat there and rotted,” Mullin said. “Because she was treated so poorly, she gave up on developing other properties she owns in South Orange, so it’s all the money she would have made had she not suffered these delays.”
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