Sparks Fly In New Jersey Zoning Dispute

By John Celock

CRANFORD, N.J. – Accusations of school overcrowding and traffic jams dominated a meeting about a local zoning dispute that has attracted the attention of one of New Jersey’s top lawmakers.

A town hall meeting Thursday night sponsored by Hartz Mountain Industries regarding their proposed 905 unit apartment complex in Cranford drew several hundred residents in opposition. Opponents said the proposal would cause school overcrowding, strain town government resources and clog local roads while the developer said there would be minimal impact and stressed the proposal still had a lengthy process to work through. The dispute has caused state Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), who represents Cranford, to call for a special session of the Legislature to address state laws governing affordable housing and land use.

“I know exactly what will happen, you will get a tax abatement and we will never get out of our driveways again,” one resident who opposes the proposal said.

Hartz Mountain officials said that the existing office and warehouse structure on the Walnut Avenue property on Cranford’s south side did not work for the company’s business plan going forward. The company said that declining tenant interest in the site and changes in commercial real estate trends; along with truck restrictions on the nearby Garden State Parkway necessitate a change in the use of the property.

“From an office standpoint, this is not a desirable location,” a Hartz Mountain planning official said. “Offices are trending in walk able downtown neighborhoods.”

The Hartz Mountain proposal would place 905 apartment units in five buildings on the property, with a portion of the units being set aside as affordable housing, helping to meet the township’s quota under the state Council on Affordable Housing guidelines. The company is seeking a redevelopment designation from Cranford officials, with a presentation to the Township Committee next week, in an attempt to move forward with the plan. A redevelopment designation would involve several years of studies between the company and local government, with township officials negotiating the final details of the site plan with the company. Barring a redevelopment designation, the company said they plan to go before the township’s planning board to change the zoning of the property from commercial to residential.

The proposed apartment complex would be the largest in Cranford, a New York City suburb of 22,000.

Bramnick stepped in as anger from residents grew and said that he opposes the plan, citing a need to change the state’s affordable housing laws. The COAH laws, one of the most contentious subjects in Garden State politics, grew out of a state Supreme Court ruling in the late 1970s dictating the need for more affordable rental units in the state’s communities. The COAH guidelines have dictated minimum amounts of affordable housing units in each community and have given developers greater power by threatening builder remedy lawsuits against local governments who deny land use approvals to move ahead on large-scale development.

Bramnick has called for state lawmakers to come into special session to address the affordable housing laws, including ways to reduce the density of the Hartz Mountain proposal.

During Thursday night’s town hall meeting, residents questioned if Hartz Mountain would seek a builder remedy lawsuit and a noncommittal company official said that anyone could file such a lawsuit.

The Hartz Mountain proposal has also garnered opposition from Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso (R) and the Clark Township Council. The property sits on the border of Cranford and Clark. Cranford township officials have not commented on the proposal, citing state law that prohibits them from commenting on certain land use proposals prior to a decision.

Residents of the nearby neighborhood objected to the plan, saying that it would negatively impact the township’s school system by adding more students and causing overcrowding in the school system.

Hartz Mountain cited a study they conducted that shows a projected 181 new students being enrolled in the school system when both phases of the project are done. The company’s planner said that the Cranford Crossing apartments in the township’s downtown has one public school student living in 50 units, while the Riverfront apartments has one public school student living in 126 units and the Woodmont apartments have 10 public school students living in 163 units. The company said the enrollment figures were provided by the Cranford Board of Education. The three complexes cited are the township’s three newest apartment complexes.

Residents objected to the Woodmont figures, with several saying from their seats that 40 children live in Woodmont. The residents did not provide information if the 30 additional children are enrolled in public or private schools or are of school age.

Residents also said that the Hartz Mountain study did not provide an accurate count of how many students would be added to the public schools. Hartz Mountain officials said they used a formula developed by Rutgers University roughly 10 years ago that is still used in New Jersey to forecast the impact of new development on school enrollment.

Hartz Mountain said the expected the apartments to appeal mostly to empty nesters and single young professionals and some families. One resident opposed to the plan noted that the 23 three bedroom units set aside for the affordable housing component would appeal to families with young children.

While Hartz Mountain said that the complex would eventually bring in $2.8 million annually in tax income to the township, former Cranford Township Administrator Marlena Schmid, a neighborhood resident, said that the township would likely end up having to pay more in the long term.

Schmid, now the business administrator in West Windsor, said that the township may need to hire more police officers and firefighters to handle the increase in residents, and potentially purchase a new ladder truck for the fire department in order to service the apartment complex. She said other local services would be strained by the influx of new residents and the quality of services for all residents could drop given the financial strain. Schmid wants the company to take that into mind, including potentially purchasing new equipment for the township.

“I ask that you take that into consideration,” Schmid said. “While you say it is cash positive for the township, I find that hard to believe.”

Hartz Mountain officials said that the impact on the township would be discussed with local officials as part of the redevelopment process.

Former Cranford Mayor Ed Force (R) questioned if the township’s sanitary sewer system could handle a 905-unit apartment complex and if the company has consulted with the Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority, which operates the township’s sanitary sewers. Hartz Mountain officials said they have not discussed the proposal with RVSA and such conversations would come as part of the process.

Residents expressed concern over the traffic impact on the nearby residential neighborhood, including an increase in cars on residential streets, along with traffic on main roads. One resident expressed concern about the side streets becoming main thoroughfares as drivers seek to get around other traffic.

“These are residential neighborhoods with small children,” he said. “This is a recipe for disaster.”

Hartz Mountain did not respond to the issues surrounding the side streets, but stressed that traffic would be minimally disrupted and touted a new traffic light that would come with the project.

In addition to the traffic dispute, residents said that the influx of new residents could crowd the Cranford train station and New Jersey Transit trains headed towards Newark and New York City. Hartz Mountain said that they have not consulted with the transit agency about the plan.

Residents and Hartz Mountain will do battle again next week when the company makes a preliminary presentation to the Township Committee. Residents were saying that the meeting should be moved from the Cranford Municipal Building to the high school auditorium to handle what they expect to be several hundred residents showing up in opposition.

Jay Rhatican, Hartz Mountain’s land use director, stressed to the crowd that the 905-unit proposal is preliminary in nature and nothing is final.

“This is a preliminary plan, if we get to a site plan then we will work out the details,” he said.