Cranford council relents on redevelopment plan

Removes private property from contentious downtown remake study after stormy debut

Photo Courtesy of the Township of Cranford
Cranford resident Rita LaBrutto addresses the township committee at its Jan. 23 meeting regarding a proposed downtown redevelopment study.

CRANFORD, NJ — Two weeks of fury by downtown business and property owners has been quelled — at least for a moment — by township officials who removed their establishments from a study which suggested that a nearly 4-acre area be declared “in need of redevelopment.”

“To sum up what the township committee will be adopting, this resolution will be taking all areas out of potential area for study, the draft study of redevelopment, with the exception of the township-owned property,” Mayor Tom Hannen told a well-attended township committee meeting Tuesday, Jan. 23.

Aside from the vacant Swan Cleaners, owned by Macrietta Realty Co. Stauber Alan, all other properties remaining for consideration in the redevelopment plan are owned by the township: a parking lot at 7 Springfield Ave., the MDTV building and the parking lots next to Bar Americana and behind Swan Cleaners.

The committee’s action also removed the use of eminent domain, which is the ability of government to acquire private property for public use.
The resolution was approved by a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Ann Dooley and Jean-Albert Maisonneuve voted against the resolution.

“I am completely in accord of the regrouping that was undertaken to reduce the study area. Where I disagree with the resolution is where I believe we should be preserving the power of eminent domain with respect to Swan Cleaners only,” Dooley said. “One hundred percent of our prfessionals have advised us to keep the power of eminent domain with respect to that property.”

Dooley stressed the imperative nature of her request to keep eminent domain in the study, saying this will help the township meet its Mount Laurel obligation.

“There is a clock ticking that expires on Jan. 1, 2019, with respect to our affordable housing issues. I don’t want to lose time, I want to make sure that that we attract development and that were doing what we are supposed to do to the fullest extent,” Dooley said.

While business owners successfully avoided condemnation, it was a costly exercise for some, such as Ralph Brunette, who owns a hair and nail salon on North Avenue East.

Brunette had his lawyer Robert Simon, of the Pennsylvania-based firm Herald Law, address the Cranford Planning Board at its Jan. 10 meeting, following the draft study presentation by Michael Mistretta of Harbor Consultants.

About a dozen other property owners met with attorney Joseph Grather, who specializes in eminent domain, prior to the Jan. 23 committee meeting to discuss their options and consider retaining him.

Despite their recent victory, some property owners said the specter of eminent domain lingers.
“It’s great removing eminent domain and all that, but it’s still out there,” Judy Swick, the co-owner and manager of Chapman Brothers Plumbing, told the township committee. Chapman Brothers is located at 36 North Ave. in the middle of the redevelopment zone that was originally proposed.

“Google any of our businesses and it comes up in the top five results. It’s impacted every one of us. It’s not going to go away overnight. I just think all of this should have been thought about before, and it should have been communicated to us,” Swick said.

Understanding the township’s Mount Laurel obligation, but infuriated by its approach, resident Rita LaBrutto dressed down the commissioners during the public comment portion of the most recent meeting.

“The execution on this couldn’t have been worse, and you probably want it to go away, but the fact is that no information was given to property owners,” she said. “I personally went to the planning board meeting in December and asked that this draft study be socialized with property owners, and I got a song and dance about it only being a draft,” LaBrutto said.

But Hannen refuted LaBrutto’s statement about the lack of transparency.
“Nobody is trying to hide anything. As pointed out previously in April, this resolution was a public document,” Hannen said. “This was a beginning of the study process. Please don’t accuse the township of trying to hide things, because we put it out in the public.”

But LaBrutto fired back, saying it was “unconscionable to me that you would think to condemn property owners, people who pay SID (Special Improvement District) taxes, that you would even include them in this without having a conversation with them.

“You can’t simply apologize and just blow that away,” she continued. “There needs to be accountability. You are volunteers. I get that. We have a say so in November, but we have a professional that we pay a lot of money to, and they need to be held accountable.”