Cranford board, residents grill traffic engineer

Photo via Township of Cranford video
James Rhatican, vice president of land use and development for Hartz Mountain Industries, and traffic engineeer Karl Pehnke testify before the Cranford Planning Board on Oct. 17.

CRANFORD, NJ — Planning Board members and residents spent much of the Oct. 17 meeting asking an expert for a developer seeking to build a 905-unit apartment complex at 750 Walnut Ave. how much traffic would be too much for the area.

They questioned Karl Pehnke, traffic expert for Hartz Mountain industries, in an attempt to arrive at a number — or discover if there is a number — of vehicles that would be too many for Walnut Avenue and the surrounding roadways such as Raritan Road to handle.

Pehnke often referred to information contained in a nine-page report submitted to the township dated Sept. 5. He said studies show there would be about 387 “trips,” or vehicles entering and leaving the site, per hour during weekday morning peak traffic, if the apartment units were constructed.

According to the study, there would be 427 “trips” per hour during the same time period if the 420,0000-square-foot office complex that occupies the 30.5-acre site were fully occupied. Pehnke’s data states that during weekday afternoon peak traffic, the proposed apartment complex would generate 419 trips, and as fully occupied industrial complex it would see about 401.

Pehnke, who was continuing his testimony from the Sept. 13 meeting, was asked by resident Joe Colangelo if there was a number of trips per day that would be considered too many for a client.

“Is that like 3,200? 1,600?” she asked.
After Pehnke responded that he didn’t know, Colangelo asked: “Is there a number where you think that this maybe doesn’t make sense for this area? Is there not a number?”

“Certainly, if your traffic projections and numbers were showing something, that conversation would occur with the development team, so there was an understanding of it and then that information would need to be conveyed and the implications of that would need to be conveyed,” he said.

“It’s not a matter of whether I tell a client not to proceed or not. It’s a matter of the applicant has developed this proposal. I’ve analyzed it. I’ve developed traffic data for it and it’s available for the board and their professionals to review. I can’t tell you as to what their feelings may be as to the level of that traffic, whether it’s acceptable or not. The information is there.”

Hartz Mountain Industries’ application to have the area rezoned for residential units is part of a proposal to raze the mostly vacant office buildings and warehouse on the site and construct three, five-story apartment buildings and two, four-story apartment buildings.
The plans also include two swimming pools, clubhouses and 1,775 parking spaces.

In the backdrop to the developer’s application is Cranford’s Mount Laurel or “fair share” of “affordable” housing requirements. The township’s immunity from “builder’s remedy” lawsuits for its second and third round of Mount Laurel housing obligations is set to expire Dec. 31. The proposed apartment complex would include 28 one-bedroom, 82 two-bedroom and 29 three-bedroom units that would be classified as Mount Laurel housing.
In all, Hartz Mountain Industries estimates the project could house almost 2,000 people.

How they would affect traffic was the focus of many of the questions directed at Pehnke.
At one point, Deputy Mayor Ann Dooley asked, “What’s the maximum you think this area can handle?”
Pehnke said he didn’t know and he didn’t know how to do that type of analysis.

“Let’s look at it another way,” he said. “If the proposal before this board was to put 2,000 units, the traffic study would be conveying the information associated with 2,000 units, relevant impacts and we’d be having that conversation … So, it’s not a matter of me making a decision of what can be handled. It’s me conveying the information to yourselves and the governing body to make that decision.”

Board member Peter Taylor then asked, “Aren’t there standards and guidelines you can go by to determine the length of roadway from a traffic light that’s going to be impacted with all these cars? So then there has to be a number on this development that where it puts over the limit of the amount of cars that are acceptable.”
Pehnke responded with a hypothetical traffic analysis in which Raritan Road and Walnut Avenue “completely blew up.”
“Well, how would you know?” Taylor asked.

“Because the analysis would show it, and my advice to you or the conclusion might be in order to make this work, I have to add a lane northbound and southbound on Walnut in order to accommodate the volumes.”

“But what’s that number?” Dooley asked. “What’s that number that’s going to show if Raritan’s going to blow up?”
“I don’t know,” Pehnke said. “I haven’t done that that kind of analysis.”

James Rhatican, vice president of land use and development for Hartz, said at the July 18 meeting that the plan would be to develop the site in two stages. In the first phase, the building that formerly housed Bank of America offices would be demolished and replaced by two buildings containing 433 units. In the second phase, the warehouse currently standing on the property would be razed, and three more buildings with a total of 472 units would be constructed.

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 quotas for the last round led to a disbandment in 2010, and the courts re-inserted themselves into the issue last year.
The first round of quotas included the years 1987 through 1993; the second was 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 as 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 had 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 her Sept. 19, 2017 ruling Superior Court Judge Camille M. Kenny pointed to the reduced density at Birchwood, saying Cranford had not satisfied its second-round obligations — being 20 units short — and ordered the township to address those requirements before proceeding to the third round.
Since Kenny refused to consider Cranford’s proposed changes to third-round obligations, it also negated Hartz’s attempt to intervene and force the town to include 750 Walnut Ave. in those quotas.

Hartz began the process to have the 750 Walnut Ave. site rezoned for “inclusionary residential development” at the Cranford Planning Board’s May 16 meeting. The proposed site of the apartment units is currently zoned commercial and allows for uses such as professional offices, health care facilities, distribution centers and research laboratories.