CRANFORD, NJ — Cranford Deputy Mayor Patrick Giblin pointed to Trenton when asked about the proposed “750 Walnut” project, but Republican Richard Buontempo simply decried the plan and declared “a vote for me, is a vote against” it at the League of Women Voters candidates forum at the Cranford Municipal Building on Thursday, Oct. 26.
Democrats Giblin and Jean-Albert Maisonneuve, Republican incumbent Andis Kalnins and Buontempo are vying for two open seats on the committee.
The issue of Hartz Mountain’s plans to erect a 900-plus apartment complex at its largely vacant office building at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road along the border with Clark was the most contentious issue among the Cranford Township Committee candidates.
Giblin, who has served as deputy mayor and a committeeman since 2015, said the township’s immune from a builder’s remedy lawsuit until 2019, and that the larger issue stems from Trenton. Giblin further noted that he will place pressure on the state legislature to try and fix the issue.
“They have to fix it,” Giblin said. “In the meantime, Cranford has 14 months to firm up our affordable housing obligations, which we’ve done and are in the process of doing, and Trenton needs to fix the problem.”
The issue has been brewing for more than six months, ever since Hartz floated its idea of constructing the 900-unit complex.
Buontempo, a longtime resident and businessman, expressed his opposition, saying schools will be detrimentally impacted and overcrowded.
Maisonneuve, who has served on the Downtown Business and Economic Development Committee for almost two terms, directly challenged Buontempo’s stance, referencing Cranford’s history with the Birchwood development, another high-density project at the other end of town near Kenilworth that cost Cranford thousands and years to fight. The project did go through, although with fewer units.
Maisonneuve said the friction between Hartz and Cranford will only generate the same costly outcome. Bolstering his experience in strategic planning and marketing, he questioned how many units Cranford can realistically handle.
“I am not for 905 units, but what I am for is working with Hartz Mountain toward a strategic plan that could incorporate a commercial tenant, bringing jobs to the community.” Maisonneuve said.
Kalnins, a former three-term mayor, acknowledged the problem stems from Trenton and underscored his stance in favor of following Cranford’s home rule and local zoning ordinances, over which state law grants local governing bodies control. He suggested the committee continue to work on the overall master plan and get it approved by the courts.
“We do have stay until the beginning of 2019, but we certainly want to work on our overall plan that we have been working on, and part of that is coming up with something that is smart,” Kalnins stated.
To address the issue in the long term, he proposed like-minded towns that want to see change in Trenton get together to file a class action lawsuit against the state, pressing it to alter the Mount Laurel Doctrine established by the Supreme Court, which orders municipalities to include affordable housing units with redevelopment.
Across the board, the candidates widely agreed on the severity of opioid addiction, which they noted is creeping into the community. Calling for education, programs and the presence of law enforcement to remedy the issue, they called it a public health crises.
They disagreed, however, on the subject of tax abatements for residential developments, which exposed differing viewpoints.
Kalnins said they should be used as an incentive to bring in residential or commercial businesses, and referred to some vacant areas within the downtown district that strike him as opportunities for tax abatement.
“As a matter of principle, I’m very reluctant,” Giblin said about the subject, adding that it is difficult to justify giving a tax break to a developer looking to build a residential high density complex.
“Maybe I would be flexible if it was some other kind of flex use, corporate or commercial building; in that case, i would be open to the idea,” he said.
Maisonneuve highlighted why the township would want to give an abatement to a developer looking to an build immense residential complex.
“If businesses are looking to move downtown and provide jobs to the community, then I would honor the opportunity,” Giblin added.
Buontempo noted that a tax abatement for residential development is not common, unless for a mixed-use development.
Two weeks prior to the Oct. 10 debate, Kalnins, was charged with a DWI and reckless driving in Warren Township, according to an NJ Advance Media article on Oct. 27. His attorney Scott Mitzner of the Mitzner and Mitzner law firm based in Watchung, told LocalSource on Oct. 30, “it is just a charge, and we expect it to be cleared up in court.”