Local Officials Skeptical About New Jersey Development Project

By John Celock

CRANFORD, N.J. – A proposed suburban apartment complex that has garnered opposition from residents and one of New Jersey top lawmakers was greeted with skepticism from local officials.

Members of the Cranford Township Committee on Tuesday used questions to representatives from Hartz Mountain Industries about a proposed 905-unit apartment complex in the township to raise concerns with the density and impact of the project. The proposal has already been met with strong opposition from neighborhood residents, who have expressed fears about school overcrowding and heavy traffic, along with New Jersey Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), who is calling for changes to the state’s housing and land use laws to block the project. Hartz Mountain has countered that the project is the only economically viable thing they can do with the currently commercially zoned property.

“There are a lot of children in this town, which is great, but we want to make sure there is space so that they get the education they deserve,” Cranford Public Affairs Commissioner Mary O’Connor (R) said at the meeting.

Hartz Mountain is asking township officials to designate the property, currently home to a warehouse and office, as an area in need of redevelopment. The process, which could take several years of negotiations between the company and local officials, would pave the way for the company to have the parcel rezoned for residential and build an apartment complex. The company has said that the suburban office park was not suitable and was no longer economically viable, a conclusion supported by the company’s planning consultant.

The density of the project has elicited strong opposition from local residents, who have centered many of their concerns on the impact of new students in the development on local schools, along with potential for additional traffic on streets on the township’s south side and additional strain on township resources. During the meeting, Cranford Board of Education President Kurt Petschow announced that the school system “expressed extreme concern” about the proposal and has specific questions about the impact of the additional student population on the system.

Hartz Mountain has said that the project would add 181 students to the school system but said Tuesday that new numbers could change that number. Residents have expressed concern that the original number from the developer was too low. Township commissioners noted that the students would all be concentrated in one school, which might necessitate a new school in town, while Cranford Mayor Tom Hannen (D), noted that the company’s estimates did not factor in the potential for special needs students, which would cause additional costs to the schools.

The 905-unit proposal would include a share of affordable housing, which would allow the township to meet its obligations under the state’s Council on Affordable Housing guidelines. The COAH law, among the most debated in New Jersey, has been controversial for years with the state placing quotas on towns for the creation of affordable rental housing and giving developers the upper hand in legal disputes over zoning and development. Developers are allowed to file builder remedy lawsuits in response to blocked projects, a legal process that has proved favorable to developers. During a town hall meeting with residents last week, Hartz Mountain did not rule out filing a builder remedy lawsuit if the project was turned down.

Bramnick has said that he wants the state Legislature called into special session to address the affordable housing laws and the requirements on local governments. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Westwood) has filed several bills to address the impact of COAH requirements on local governments but the bills remain in the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee, where committee chairman Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Plainfield) has not scheduled the legislation for a hearing or a vote.

Earlier this month, Schepisi tried to get the Assembly to take the bills out of Green’s committee and moved to the floor for a vote but the Assembly Democratic-majority blocked Schepisi’s motions.

During the Tuesday meeting, Cranford officials expressed concerns over the budget impact that Hartz Mountain’s consultants submitted, noting that the schools could lose the over $1 million of projected tax revenue but building a new school and handling the influx. Hannen noted that the services the township could need to provide would cause a strain on the local government.

Cranford Public Works Commissioner Ann Dooley (D) expressed concerns over if the market would be able to support a 905-unit development in the township and of a potential impact of the units being built close to a Conrail line, which is used to transport natural gas. Hartz Mountain officials said they have not investigated potential rail disasters and that they would work with local officials on the impact.

Several Township Committee members used the hearing to question why other projects were not used for the site, including a mixed-use commercial and residential space or the creation of a technology incubator for small companies in the innovation sector. Hartz Mountain said they did not want to build a mixed-use facility and that data shows that the employees of technology start-ups want to be in walk able communities. The property is not located in the downtown.

O’Connor said that she believes that a community for residents over the age of 55 would work well in the spot and questioned why Hartz Mountain isn’t doing an age restriction.

“There is a need for affordable age restricted communities for active adults here and not at the Shore,” O’Connor said. “I can think of 50 people who would want one.”

Hartz Mountain land use director Jay Rhatican said that the complex would be targeted towards retirees and young professionals. O’Connor said she is not sure if young professionals would want the site, noting that she knows many who want to buy homes in Cranford and not rent apartments.

Hannen said that the Township Committee had not scheduled a vote on the Hartz Mountain proposal and would likely need more time to talk to the company and discuss the matter internally before making a decision. Rhatican confirmed with Hannen that the Township Committee would be meeting in August, which could contain another presentation. Any vote from the Township Committee would allow the township Planning Board to begin the process, which would involve several rounds of negotiation between the township government and Hartz Mountain.

Residents at the meeting largely expressed opposition to the project, echoing comments they made at last week’s town hall meeting. The proposal has also garnered opposition from Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso (R), who briefly attended Tuesday’s meeting. Clark borders the proposed project.

Rhatican used his opening remarks to the Township Committee to stress the preliminary nature of the proposal. While he had used similar themes during the town hall meeting last week, his comments Tuesday were more definitive in the preliminary nature of the proposal and desire to work with the local government.

“These are concept plans and they are not fully engineered,” he said. “This is a first step in the process.”