CRANFORD, NJ — The planning board was greeted with applause from 125 or so residents at its Aug. 1 meeting when it voted to require a developer seeking to build a 905-unit apartment complex at 750 Walnut Ave. to provide an environmental impact statement.
Board members wondered whether the 30.5-acre parcel of land had been impacted by previous tenants, such as J.B. Williams Co., which made Geritol, Sominex, Serutan and others.
The Hyatt Hills Golf Complex, which borders the site to the southwest, was built on land once owned by General Motors. Approximately 15 years ago, GM paid tens of millions of dollars to remediate the Clark site that once housed a factory and is now a nine-hole golf course.
Other members of the board want to know whether the ground at the site could support the weight of three, five-story buildings and two, four-story buildings Hartz Mountain Industries is seeking to construct. Additionally, the developer proposes building two clubhouses, two pools and enough parking spaces for about 1,800 cars on the site.
When the subject of an environmental impact statement was first broached at the meeting, Deputy Mayor Ann Dooley said: “I make a motion to request, actually to demand, an EIS.”
After the unanimous vote had been taken and the audience’s applause had subsided, board member Peter Taylor asked James Rhatican, vice president of land use and development for Hartz Mountain Industries, if he “had any objections” to providing an environmental impact statement.
Rhatican referred to the fact that Hartz Mountain Industries began the application process to have the site rezoned from industrial to “inclusionary residential development” in March 2017.
“Well, it took a year to ask for it, but other than that,“ Rhatican said. “It won’t be at the next meeting, I can tell you that. The application was deemed complete so I think given the delay is a little inappropriate but we understand the sensitivity of the issue.”
Rhatican indicated it would take about six weeks to complete the statement. He said the project’s planner would be able to testify at the board’s Sept. 5 meeting. The project’s traffic engineer is scheduled to testify at a special Sept. 12 meeting of the board.
Much of the Aug. 1 meeting, which ended a little past midnight, focused on Hartz Mountain’s plans for parking on the site.
James Martell, Hartz Mountain’s civic engineer on the project, said each of the 1,775 spaces proposed in the conceptual plan presented to the board is 9-by-18 feet. Board members said the township’s ordinance calls for spaces to be 10 feet wide.
When asked by members of the board if the ordinance had been “ignored” when the conceptual plan was created, Martell said: “The ordinance wasn’t ignored, but we took our lead from the state’s parameters relative to the size of parking spaces.”
Taylor pointed out that increasing each space size from 9 feet to 10 feet would result in the loss of 177 spaces.
The board also asked Martell about a detention basin along Walnut Avenue. Taylor asked if there would be an impact on parking and building layout if a larger basin was necessary.
That led to a clash between Rhatican, Taylor and Dooley about what is required by the developer for the application.
“I am just going to interject to say that your ordinance on what’s required for a rezoning application does not require any of this, and I think the intent, I suspect, in drafting the ordinance that dictates what has to be submitted is that these are issues that are reserved for the site plan process and not for a conceptual rezoning application,” Rhatican said. “I think we are going beyond what we are required to do for a zoning application.”
That didn’t sit well with Taylor.
“I disagree because the word ‘concept’ is to show what something could actually happen or take place. And you have parking spaces that are too small, you have detention basins that are undersized. It’s going to change the whole concept of the plan and what we may get is nothing like what we see today. So, we need to ask these questions to find out if indeed this plan has any validity to it.”
A design concept unveiled at the board’s July 18 meeting gave residents their first glimpse of the project. Rhatican said the plan is to develop the site in two stages. First, the office building that was once a home for Bank of America would be knocked down and two buildings housing a total of 433 apartments would be constructed.
Then the warehouse on the property would be razed and three more buildings with a total of 472 units would be built in the second phase.
Hartz Mountain is applying to have the site rezoned to eliminate the office and warehouse uses in favor of a multifamily residential use. It is attempting to leverage Mount Laurel housing rules to convince town officials to approve the project.
Hartz Mountain architect Bruce Englebaugh’s concept showed that the the project would include 28 one-bedroom, 82 two-bedroom and 29 three-bedroom units that would be classified as Mount Laurel housing.
A Superior Court judge ruled Cranford has until Dec. 31 to satisfy its Mount Laurel housing obligations. The 1975 N.J. Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel decision required all municipalities in the state to zone for a “fair share” of housing to all “economic strata, including low and moderate income.” It later created the “builder’s remedy” to coerce the towns into meeting the court’s demand.
The Council on Affordable Housing was then created by the state Legislature to determine quotas and identify techniques municipalities could use to comply with affordable housing obligations, determined within set time periods referred to as “rounds.”
Lawsuits and disputes on COAH’s quotas for the last round led to a disbandment in 2010, leading the courts to reinsert themselves into the issue last year.
The first round of quotas included the years from 1987 through 1993. The second was from 1993 through 1999, and third is 1999 through 2018. For each round, municipalities were to project housing needs, account for the court’s “affordable” housing mandate, and zone accordingly.
Cranford was deemed to be failing to meet its early round 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 affordable units on Birchwood.
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.
Since 2013, circumstances have changed as Cranford successfully reduced the Birchwood development 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 for rounds two and three from 2018 to July 15, 2025.
However, in a ruling in September last year, Judge Camille M. Kenny pointed to the reduced density at Birchwood, saying Cranford had not satisfied round two obligations — being 20 units short — and ordered the township to address those requirements before proceeding to round three.
Since Kenny refused to consider Cranford’s proposed changes to round three obligations, it also negated Hartz’s attempt to intervene and force the town to include 750 Walnut Ave. in those quotas.
Hartz Mountain began its testimony to have the 750 Walnut Ave. site rezoned for “inclusionary residential development” at the planning board’s May 16 meeting. The proposed site of the apartments is currently zoned for uses such as professional offices, healthcare facilities, distribution centers and research laboratories.
At the July 18 meeting, Matt McDonough, a commercial real estate broker, testified on Hartz Mountain’s behalf that the current office building is unlikely to attract new tenants in the future. He said the building is antiquated by today’s standards, among other things, it was constructed with limited window space. McDonough said many companies are choosing to set up their offices in urban settings such as Hoboken and Jersey City that are more appealing to prospective employees.