CRANFORD, NJ — School Superintendent Scott Rubin told the local Planning Board that a proposed 905-unit apartment complex at 750 Walnut Ave. would add more than 300 students to the district, calling it a “burden” the town could not accommodate.
To put the impact in perspective for the board, Rubin said the projected 353 students added to the township’s school system would represent more than the enrollment of Bloomingdale Avenue School at 250 students, Brookside Place School at 321, Livingston Avenue School at 258 or Walnut Avenue School at 321.
Rubin added that, considering it currently costs about $15,915 to educate one student for one year, the annual fiscal impact to the district would be about $5.6 million per year.
Hartz Mountain Industries’ application to rezone the area from office and warehouse zone to a residential one is part of a proposal to raze the mostly vacant office buildings and warehouse at the site and construct three, five-story apartment buildings and two, four-story apartment buildings. The plans also include two swimming pools, clubhouses and some 1,800 parking spaces.
When asked by board attorney Mark Rothman at the March 20 meeting to assess the project’s impact, Rubin responded with a lengthy statement referencing the district’s “desire and obligation” to maintain or expand current programming. He said the schools are already “bursting at the seams” and added that the school budget can increase only 2 percent each year without voter approval.
Rubin also said that even if money were allocated to build new schools to accommodate the influx of students, it would take years of planning and construction before the schools would be ready.
“Given those current restraints as I understand them,” Rubin said, “I truthfully don’t know a way it would be possible for the schools to accommodate the students projected from that proposed development. It creates the type of burden that I don’t know how the district would overcome.”
Ross Haber, an East Brunswick-based demographer hired by the school district, also testified that, of the 353 students, 247 would be in kindergarten through fifth grade, 71 would be in grades six to eight and 35 would be high school. He said the district could not accommodate the influx of students unless it were to renovate its current buildings or build new ones.
“Assuming the district doesn’t have funding to do what it needs to do, which is renovating buildings, standing buildings, assuming it doesn’t do that, there’s only one way and that’s increase class size,” Haber said, adding that “the district couldn’t accommodate another 100 kids, much less another 353 kids.”
The Haber study, completed in May, stands in stark contrast to Hartz Mountain’s own projections of student-population growth. Planner Keenan Hughes testified at a January meeting that plans to build the complex on a 30.5-acre tract of land on the boundary with Clark on the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road, would add between 110 and 135 students to Cranford’s schools.
Hughes attended the March 20 meeting with James Rhatican, Hartz Mountain vice president of land use, but did not testify. He occasionally conferred with Rhatican as he asked Haber questions about his study.
In the backdrop of Hartz Mountain’s ongoing application is the township’s need to meet its third-round fair share affordable housing obligation. The township took a step toward trying to meet its third-round Mount Laurel housing obligations when the Planning Board voted to accept a plan in December that would zone for 105 affordable housing units.
The plan calls for the creation of 85 units the township calculated as part of its “realistic development potential,” or RDP, for the third round under the Mount Laurel doctrine established by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The plan also addresses the 20-unit shortfall from the second round, created when the size of the Birchwood development near the Kenilworth border was reduced from 360 units to 225.
The township had been facing a Dec. 31 deadline to address its Mount Laurel housing obligations before its immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits expired, although that exemption has been extended through the end of June. Such lawsuits — essentially a developer’s way to have control of the zoning and building process if a town is declared deficient in its mandated affordable housing — were created to coerce towns into meeting what the court declared was a constitutional requirement of each town.
Mike Mistretta, of Harbor Consultants, who prepared the plan for the township, said at the December Cranford Planning Board meeting that PSE&G had written a letter to the township in March 2018 proposing to purchase 10 to 12 of the 30.5 acres on which Hartz Mountain plans to build. Based on this, Mistretta said the housing plan anticipates Hartz Mountain building on 20.5 acres at a density of 10 units per acre.
“We recognize it,” Mistretta said. “We’re not trying to hide it. It’s right here in our plan. If that changes, if PSE&G doesn’t want the land, then you apply the density to the overall 30.5 acres. Or if it’s somewhere in between, if it’s 4 acres or 5 acres, we recognize that. We will adjust the RDP accordingly. So that’s an ongoing issue.”
Cranford schools business administrator Robert Carfagno did not testify at the March 20 meeting, but he is expected to speak when the application continues at the board’s April 3 meeting.