Cranford residents upset with developer’s no-shows

Property owner Hartz Mountain Industries is seeking to build 905 apartment units on the boundary with Clark on the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road, bordered by a freight rail line to the northwest and Hyatt Hills Golf Complex to the southwest. It is attempting to leverage Mount Laurel housing rules to get town officials to approve the project.

CRANFORD, NJ — A group of residents opposed to plans for 905 apartments on a 30.5-acre property at 750 Walnut Ave. say they don’t want their efforts turned into a cartoon punchline.

Cranford Residents Against Overdevelopment has stated in a letter that property owner Hartz Mountain Industries often withdraws from meetings, comparing its actions to the Peanuts comic strip in which Lucy convinces Charlie Brown to kick a football, then pulls it away as he approaches. The group is urging the Cranford Planning Board to confirm the developer will attend the meeting scheduled for Wednesday, July 18, asking it to instruct board attorney Mark Rothman to send a letter to the developer’s attorneys. The group wants the developer to confirm at least 10 days in advance that it will be at the meeting.

“It is inappropriate and unfair to the taxpayers in this town that, like Lucy from Peanuts and her famous football, Hartz keeps setting and adjourning meeting dates in an obvious effort to weaken citizen resistance,” the letter reads in part.

Hartz Mountain is seeking to build 905 apartment units on the Clark border at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road on land bordered by a freight rail line to the northwest and Hyatt Hills Golf Complex to the southwest. It is attempting to leverage Mount Laurel housing rules in a “builder’s remedy” effort to get town officials to approve the project.

A Superior Court judge has ruled the town has until Dec. 31 to satisfy its Mount Laurel housing obligations.
With regard to 750 Walnut Ave., Rothman said “an application was adjourned several times by the applicant.”
The planning board and developer cannot agree whether the developer should have been included on the agenda for the Wednesday, June 6, meeting. According to an alert posted to the Cranford Planning Board’s website from Wednesday, June 6, at 8:38 a.m., the meeting to discuss 750 Walnut Ave. was adjourned to Monday, July 18.

However a review of the official transcript from the planning board meeting on Wednesday, May 16, indicates Hartz Mountain was not scheduled to be at the June 6 meeting, rather that would be the date when a special meeting, if scheduled, would be announced.

According to a copy of the transcript obtained by The LocalSource, Cranford Planning Board Chairwoman Kathleen Murray said toward the end of the meeting, “There may be a decision to have a special meeting. So we will notice that publicly and on the website, if we do have a special meeting. And that date will be announced at our June 6 meeting. If there was a special meeting scheduled for the developer to present more testimony, it would be announced at the June 6 meeting.”

No special meeting was scheduled after the meeting on Wednesday, May 16.
“There certainly is no bad faith in our efforts to schedule as we have not been hiding the ball or holding onto the ball,” James Rhatican, Hartz Mountain’s vice president of land use and development, said. “We were unable to come up with a special meeting date before July 18 and that’s why we’re going to be there on July 18.”

Cranford was deemed to be failing to meet its early round of Mount Laurel affordable housing obligations, resulting in years of litigation surrounding property on Birchwood Avenue near the Kenilworth border. In 2008, the township was sued by Cranford Development Associates under the builder’s remedy provision as it sought to construct apartments with subsidized units there.

Nearly five years later, in 2013, Judge Lisa Chrystal granted CDA the right to construct a 360-unit complex and also granted Cranford immunity from further Mount Laurel lawsuits until Dec. 31. But since 2013, circumstances have changed as the Birchwood development was reduced by the township to 225 units.

While Cranford has a little more than a year until its immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits expires, it asked the court in July 2017 to consider the new circumstances and extend the immunity until July 15, 2025. But in her Sept. 19 ruling, Judge Camille M. Kenny pointed to the reduced density at Birchwood, saying Cranford had not satisfied its obligations — being 20 units short — and ordered the township to address them. Since the judge refused to consider Cranford’s proposed changes to its obligations, Hartz Mountain’s attempt to intervene and force the town to include 750 Walnut Ave. in those quotas was negated.

At the May 16 meeting, planning board members heard testimony in Hartz Mountain’s application to rezone 750 Walnut Ave for “inclusionary residential development.” The proposed site of the apartment units is currently zoned as commercial, allowing it to be used for professional offices, health care facilities, distribution centers and research laboratories.

The property formerly housed Johnson and & Johnson and Bank of America, among others. Rhatican said LabCorp occupies about 80,000 square feet in the rear of one building and PSE&G occupies about 22,000 square feet. Other than that, he said, there’s a “very substantial vacancy” in the complex, he said.

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