Hartz Mountain sues over 750 Walnut property

CRANFORD, N.J. — Hartz Mountain Industries is suing the municipality regarding the Cranford Township Committee’s decision to reject its request to rezone its property at 750 Walnut Ave. for residential use.

Hartz Mountain is not seeking a “builder’s remedy” option under the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel rulings, but claims in its suit, which was filed Oct. 24 in Superior Court, that Cranford’s decision was “arbitrary” “capricious,” violates the federal Fair Housing and Civil Rights acts and denies housing to low-income individuals.

It also claims in the suit, available on the township’s website, that the Township Committee’s Sept. 10 decision to accept the Planning Board’s unanimous vote to reject the rezoning request regulates its 30.5-acre property “into a state of inutility,” causing economic harm to the company.

The township is not able to comment on the pending litigation, according to an email from Mayor Patrick Giblin and a Nov. 4 phone interview with township attorney Ryan Cooper.

However, after the vote in September Giblin explained the council’s position, saying, “We accepted the Planning Board’s recommendation not to rezone the property. It’s a commercial office space. Hartz Mountain applied to rezone the property, and the Planning Board denied their request.”

In its recommendation to the Township Committee, the Planning Board said it found that rezoning would not substantially or financially benefit Cranford and that it did not align with the goals of the township’s master plan because it would disrupt the historic character of the town.

Cranford has been granted immunity from “builder’s remedy” lawsuits as it negotiates with the courts over its affordable housing plan.

All municipalities in New Jersey are required to zone for affordable housing under the state Supreme Court’s 1975 Mount Laurel decision. In a subsequent ruling in 1983, the court devised the “builder’s remedy” lawsuit, which gives developers wide authority to erect large multi unit apartment buildings as a means to coerce towns to comply with its decision.

Builder’s remedy authority gives developers wide latitude in their construction so long as a portion of the units are rented for below market rates. Hartz Mountain began the process to rezone 750 Walnut more than two years ago with the intention to raze the existing structures to build 905 apartments in three, five-story buildings and two, four-story buildings; 139 of the 905 were designated as subsidized units.

Company officials testified during the two years of hearing that much of the existing property is vacant. The existing building is about 420,000 square feet and was an industrial and manufacturing facility constructed in the 1940s by Johnson & Johnson. Hartz bought it in 1988.

LabCorp occupies about 80,000 square feet in the rear of the building and PSE&G occupies about 22,000 square feet for a call center. A trucking company also leases space.

The current zoning for the site allows for limited uses, including professional offices, health care facilities, distribution centers and research laboratories.

Bank of America leased about 248,000 square feet of space and vacated the building about 10 years ago, but continued to pay rent until its lease expired about two years ago.

In its recommendation, the Planning Board stated that the new complex, if built as presented by Hartz, could increase the population of Cranford, 24,439 as of 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 1,600 to 1,800 people, “which would be a 7 percent increase in the town’s overall population.”

The complex would also feature two swimming pools, clubhouses, and 1,800 parking spaces.

During the two years of hearings, Schools Superintendent Scott Rubin testified that the complex would be a “burden” on the district and that the district’s analysis suggested a 353-student increase from the complex. At $15,915 to educate one student for one year, the development would cost the school system about $5.6 million per year, he said. That would not account for building new schools to accommodate the influx of students, which would take years of planning and construction, Rubin said.

During the hearings, Planning Board members criticized Hartz Mountain’s decision to turn the current office and light industrial complex into apartment buildings.

Hartz said it had tried to market the property, but there was little demand for it and its location, not easily accessible by heavy trucks, makes it unattractive.

Planning Board member Bobbi Anderson stated that Hartz had acquired the property in 1988 but had made minimal improvements since then, missing a market.

“It’s reasonable to consider that Hartz 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 that is most profitable to Hartz,” Planning Board member Christpher Chapman said at the June 5 meeting.

Giblin agreed.

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

The Planning Board concluded that Hartz Mountain had failed to show how rezoning the property will meaningfully benefit the community, and that the applicant’s planning professional failed to establish the substantial fiscal benefit to the township.

“The proposed request to rezone the property fails to the principles of balanced land use, sustainable development,” the recommendation read. “The proposed request to rezone is not consistent with the direction to support and complement existing transportation.”