Sunny Acres residents anticipate shadow of Hartz project

Photos by Chuck O’Donnell Residents and Cranford Township Committee members celebrated with a group photo moments after the committee voted unanimously on Tuesday, Aug. 14 to designate Sunny Acres the municipality’s first historic district.

CRANFORD, NJ — The room filled with applause the moment the ordinance to designate Sunny Acres as a historic district was unanimously approved by the Township Committee on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

Moments later, 50 or so Sunny Acres residents and the committee members posed for photos in front of a banner reading: “Sunny Acres: First Cranford Historic District.” The residents wore big smiles and matching blue shirts, and some children sat cross-legged in front of the banner. The party continued late into the night at the Cranford Hotel, where residents rejoiced with food and drinks.
No one was talking about the 905-unit elephant in the room.

Hartz Mountain Industries’ proposed apartment complex at 750 Walnut Ave. would be built less than a half mile down the road from Sunny Acres, a neighborhood of 172 Cape Cod and Colonial Revival-style homes constructed by Sears Roebuck between 1940 and 1943.
Hartz Mountain began the application process to have the site rezoned from industrial to “inclusionary residential development” in March 2017.

Since then, the developer’s experts have rolled out the details of its plan to build five apartment buildings on the 30.5-acre tract, located 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.

Loretta Smith, a member of the Sunny Acres Civic Improvement Association and the Cranford Historic Preservation Advisory Board, said Hartz Mountain’s proposed three, five-story buildings and two, four-story buildings will almost literally cast a shadow over Sunny Acres and spoil the quaintness of Cranford.

Smith, who has lived in Sunny Acres for 51 years, said the proposed complex is weighing on the minds of many of the residents who have attended board meetings to voice their concerns about its effect on traffic and the school population.

“It weighs enough that there are a few houses for sale,” Smith said during a telephone interview Aug. 16. “Maybe they would have come up anyway, but closer to the area where some of those others like Behnert and Pershing and MacArthur, there are houses in there for sale. Talking to neighbors we know who live off of those streets, they’re up in arms as to whether should they try to move out now. Should they stay on? Should they hope that it won’t happen? So, there’s a lot of unrest in this whole big area because people aren’t sure what’s going to happen and we’re not getting any answers.”

The Cranford Planning Board’s decision to ask Hartz Mountain to provide an environmental impact statement at 750 Walnut Ave. was met with applause from the 125 or so residents who attended the board’s Aug. 1 meeting.

Board members wondered if or how 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 other famous brands.

The Hyatt Hills Golf Complex was built on land once owned by General Motors, which paid tens of millions of dollars approximately 15 years ago to remediate the Clark site and transform it into a nine-hole course.

“It’s certainly within the board’s discretion to require it from us,” said James Rhatican, vice president of land use and development for Hartz Mountain Industries, about the environmental impact statement.

“That’s no surprise. I think if the board had wanted it, the board should have asked for it not long after the application was filed. A year ago, if they thought there were truly environmental issues instead of waiting over a year into the process and now two and a half months into the hearing process to ask for the report. We’ll provide it. It’s just going to slow down the process, that’s all,” Rhatican said in an Aug. 15 phone interview,

The history of area in and around 750 Walnut Ave. differs from history of the Sunny Acres Historic District.
Smith said Sunny Acres was once home to the family of Thomas Sperry, co-founder of S&H Green Stamps, along with Shelley Byron Hutchinson. The family sold the land to Sears Roebuck.

Smith said Sunny Acres was the largest planned development of single-family homes in Cranford during the first half of the 20th century. It is also the first development in Cranford that made 30-year mortgages available to home buyers, making home ownership an option for working- and middle-class families.

Carole Esposito, the unofficial historian of Sunny Acres, has filled several binders with newspaper clippings, old photographs and even a copy of a check one resident used to put a down payment on a house.

“It was a great place to raise four boys,” she said. “The neighbors would watch out for each other’s children and make sure they were all right.”

The designation of historic district is largely honorary. Unlike when a home is added to a register of historic places, owners of Sunny Acres homes will not be held to any standards other than the ones imposed by the township. Historic district status also does not require owners to repair or restore their homes.

According to Ordinance No. 2018-12, Sunny Acres will be recognized in the township’s master plan, the designation will be noted on all records maintained by the tax assessor and town clerk, and a letter detailing the designation will be sent to Sunny Acres homeowners.
The Smiths and Esposito plan to attend the Cranford Planning Board meetings next month when Hartz Mountain continues its application. Rhatican 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 board meeting Sept. 12.

“The application is proceeding about how we anticipated it would and we are looking forward to presenting our additional proofs through our additional witnesses,” Rhatican said. “We are certainly trying to take in account and address the comments of the Planning Board and the public at large.”