CRANFORD, N.J. — The Township Committee has accepted the Planning Board’s recommendation to not rezone a 30.5-acre plot, commonly known as 750 Walnut Ave., on the south side of town to accommodate a 905-unit apartment complex, setting up a possible legal clash with the property owner.
The committee unanimously adopted a resolution at its Sept. 10 meeting endorsing the Planning Board’s recommendation from its Sept. 4 gathering to leave the property, occupied by office buildings and light industrial space, in a C-3 zone. The move essentially ends at least the first phase of a battle that has seen Hartz Mountain Industries spar with nearby residents, and some planning board members, over the future of the property during the past two years.
“Hartz Mountain may appeal this decision from the Township Committee,” Mayor Patrick Giblin said in a statement on his official Facebook page, a copy of which he emailed to the LocalSource. “They would have 45 days to appeal.
“Hartz Mountain has repeatedly opposed our extension of immunity in court. The Township of Cranford continues active discussions/negotiations with Fair Share Housing regarding our affordable housing plan. Next step is a conference on Oct. 2.”
In a Sept. 14 phone interview, Giblin said that since Hartz Mountain submitted its application to redevelop the property in 2017, there have been 15 Planning Board meetings that at least partially discussed the property at 750 Walnut, which borders Clark along the southern and western edges. Raritan Road forms the southern edge while the Hyatt Hills Golf Complex is to the west.
“We accepted the Planning Board’s recommendation not to rezone the property. It’s a commercial office space,” the mayor said. “Hartz mountain applied to rezone the property, and the planning board denied their request.”
The property, currently in a C-3 zone includes seven structures, comprised of commercial office and warehouse buildings, much of which is unoccupied. The C-3 zone allows for business, administrative, executive, and professional offices; health care facilities; office-distribution centers, and golf courses, according to township documents.
The fate of the property, which is shielded by trees along Walnut Avenue across from a large section of single-family homes, has been vigorously debated during the past two years, including with the “Say No to 750 Walnut” lawn-sign and internet campaign.
Attorney Keith Loughlin, of the Hill Wallack law firm in Princeton, spoke at the Sept. 10 meeting on behalf Hartz Mountain, imploring the Township Committee in a brief address not to follow the Planning Board’s recommendation, reiterating Hartz Mountain’s claims that the “C-3 zoning does not provide viable development options for the Hartz property.”
Loughlin did not respond to an email seeking further comment.
Among the issues batted back and forth have been Hartz Mountain’s contention that the property is underutilized and that the market demand for its current use is extremely low.
In addition to disputing that assertion, residents and local officials have voiced concerns about the density of the 905 units, increased traffic and impact on the local public schools. School Superintendent Scott Rubin testified at a March Planning Board meeting that the project would add more than 300 students, which he called a “burden.”
In the backdrop of Hartz Mountain’s application has been the township’s court-mandated requirement to meet its obligation to zone for a third round of Mount Laurel affordable housing.
Under an initial 1975 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, and subsequent decisions, each town must zone for its “fair share,” or court-formulated number, of low- to moderate-income housing units. Those numbers are periodically reviewed and updated. To enforce its ruling, the court created a “builder’s remedy” lawsuit, which gives developers great latitude in construction, including number of units, if the court determines the municipality has not met its burden.
The court has extended Cranford’s immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits until Oct. 25, while it developed plans to meet its requirements. Hartz Mountain has hinted about a builder’s remedy lawsuit during its application for the Walnut Avenue project.