Mayor asks for input on uses for defunct industrial site

CLARK— In 1947 when the U.S. Gypsum plant on Raritan Road opened for business it was during the boom industrial years when men were coming back from fighting World War II and looking for steady, good paying jobs. They found those jobs at the new paper manufacturing plant and across the street at the General Motors Hyatt Roller Bearing factory. But that no longer is the case.

Some 65 years later, the heyday of profitable, thriving industrial factories with around the clock shifts manning operations have gone the way of the horse and buggy. With the profit margin no longer viable and environmental issues too restrictive, the Hyatt plant closed its doors in the late 70s, while U.S. Gypsum managed to hang on until 2009.

The question of what happens to the large acreage of former industrial plant properties when shut down and put up for sale becomes the municipality’s problem. Often, though, it is an opportunity for a municipality to become involved in a redevelopment project that could send additional tax dollars streaming into a town’s coffers.

Although the Hyatt property underwent extensive New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection cleanup, the deal struck with Clark and to a lesser degree, Cranford, was not as lucrative for either municipality. In fact, both towns actually are on the hook financially if something should go wrong with the 18-hole golf course that now graces this industrial site.

Certainly the state-of-the-art golf facility has been utilized since it was built more than ten years ago, but whether it will ever be a money generator for either town remains questionable. Still, with its batting cage and miniature golf course, in addition to the popular Senorita’s Mexican Grill on site, Hyatt Hills has managed to survive, if not thrive financially and reap a profit for its sister towns.

The question of what will become of the former U.S. Gypsum plant property has continued to be the topic of conversation among Clark elected officials as well as residents since 2009. Now Mayor Sal Bonaccorso wants to do something so it does not continue to remain an abandoned industrial plant.

The mayor is asking residents to voice their opinions as to what they would like to see on the 28-acre site that is bordered with 100-year-old trees.

A survey, the mayor said, will be mailed  to citizens, asking for their input on what they would like to see on the Gypsum site.

Bonaccorso said recently that a developer has expressed interest in the property, but it would have to be rezoned. The mayor wished the developer good luck before the zoning board and thought that would be the last he heard about the venture. But it was not.

The developer came back to Bonaccorso, explaining that because the property was so large, they thought any  zoning changes should be decided by the governing body through a change in the master plan.

Bonaccorso, after consulting with the township legal advisors, was advised that it might be time to update the master plan because things had changed significantly in the township since 1947. Especially concerning the zoning involving industrial properties.

The mayor, though, does not want to see housing on the large track of land that borders Raritan Road and Walnut Avenue. In fact, he does not believe even light industry should go on the site because it is not as profitable as it was in the past.

“Who’s building light industry in New Jersey today?” he asked.

But if residents think a park might be nice on that site, think again. That is not something the mayor is even entertaining. In fact, he suggested that residents not waste the survey he is sending out by making that suggestion.

The property, he said, is worth somewhere in the range of $17 million and he is not about to spend taxpayer dollars to purchase the land and then turn it into a park and get zero tax return on it.

And before any one suggests the township go to the county or state for the funding, Bonnaccorso feels there are enough parks in Clark already.

The mayor does not expect everyone to agree on what should go on the former Gypsum site, but he does believe taxpayers should have input.

“This is a project we have to live with for the next 100 years,” Bonaccorso said, adding the township has to handle this project correctly or could find themselves in court.

“We just can’t keep saying ‘no’ to someone who wants to rightfully sell their land,” the mayor said, adding that the owner could file a lawsuit saying the township acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

Although the township was criticized in the past for not rezoning property to shut out developers who wanted to build multi-family dwellings, in this particular case, the governing body can make a difference.

But, because the developer is looking for  a retail use and not industrial, changing the master plan might facilitate the process legally.

The survey mailed to residents inquires whether residents want housing, commercial retail, office space or commercial with office, and also asks those responding to write down their own ideas if none of these suggestions fit what they feel is best for the former Gypsum plant.

The surveys have to be returned to town hall by Dec. 10 and unless residents sign their name and address, their comments will not be counted.

The mayor said that will avoid “stuffing the ballot box.”