Cranford board votes against 750 Walnut

Cranford Planning Board member Christopher Chapman, center, offers his thoughts at the June 5 meeting on why he was voting to recommend the township committee reject a request to have a 30.5-acre property at 750 Walnut rezoned for residential use.

CRANFORD, NJ — The local planning board voted unanimously June 5 to recommend that the township committee reject a rezoning request for a 30.5-acre site at 750 Walnut so that a proposed 905-unit apartment complex could be built.
The vote was met with enthusiastic applause from the assembled gallery at the 14th meeting regarding Hartz Mountain Industries’ application for the property at the southern tip of the municipality. However, the final fate of the development still rests in the hands of the township committee.

Hartz application is proposing to rezone the property from office and warehouse to a residential area is part of a proposal to raze the mostly vacant office buildings and a warehouse to 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.

At the more than three-hour meeting, the board deemed the redevelopment resulting from the rezoning wouldn’t substantially and meaningfully benefit the township or further the purposes of the municipal land use law. In its application, Hartz argued that current zoning restrictions would result in the site having no practical use.

Hartz also explained that they were facing financial hardships and couldn’t use the site for office space.
Board member Christopher Chapman offered his opinions first, stating that Hartz was not entitled to have its property rezoned for the “most favorable or economic benefit.

“Charles Reese, who also testified, indicated that 750 Walnut hasn’t been marketed for sale and that there is no desire to sell the property,” he said, adding that Reese indicated that Hartz is currently in negotiations with PSE&G for the utility company to purchase a portion of 750 Walnut for a substation.

PSE&G is looking to purchase 8-10 acres of the triangular-shaped property for a new electricity power substation. A substation is permitted in a C-3 zone.

“It is reasonable to consider that Hartz is attempted to have the property rezoned not because the current zoning is placing the property into inutility, but that Hartz is attempting to utilize the property in a manner which is most profitable to Hartz,” Chapman said.

Board member Bobbi Anderson mentioned that Hartz Mountain acquired the property in 1988 and has made minimal improvements to it since.

“There has been no money put into it, with the exception of adapting some things, they have not been updated and the world has changed drastically since 1988,” she said. “It is my opinion that the property has not been zoned into inutility but because they have not chosen to update things and market things to normal standards, that they have missed an opportunity to have this property be profitable and there is still a great opportunity for this property to be an amazing campus-like facility which is a growing trend in the suburban real estate industry.”

Board member Peter Taylor sited that when negotiations with Summit Medical Group to lease out a substantial piece of the property in May 2018 fell through, Hartz didn’t attempt to lease the property further.

Mayor Patrick Giblin also agreed that Hartz failed to market the property properly.
“All they had to do was maintain the property and market it properly and employers and companies would have been happy to, in my opinion, to come and establish a workforce,” he said.

Board members went on to deliberate how the potential rezoning could negatively impact the school district and how it doesn’t align with the township’s master plan.

“It is my opinion that regardless of which numbers we use — 135 or 353 — that the additional students will not substantially and meaningfully be a benefit to the township or the educational goals of the curriculum of our public-school system in part because of the possible increase in class sizes, the reduction of educational space, the reduction of educational opportunities and the need to increase the number of faculty and staff without having the funds to do so,” Chapman said.

Hartz planner Keenan Hughes testified at the January meeting that the development would add between 110 and 135 students to Cranford’s schools, while Superintendent of Schools Scott Rubin testified in March that it would add more than 300 students, calling it a “burden” the town could not accommodate.

Mark Rothman, the planning board attorney, is expected to have a final resolution ready for the July 17 planning board meeting, where the board will formally vote on the decision not to rezone the property.
The township committee is then expected to consider the resolution and vote at the Aug. 13 meeting.