CLARK — Last week the township moved a step closer to ensuring the former 28-acre U.S. Gypsum plant on Raritan Road stays within the vision they have of a new town center.
There were at least 100 residents in the audience the night of the final hearing that ultimately saw the Planning Board unanimously approve changing the zoning for the Raritan Road prime parcel of land.
The Gypsum property, previously an industrial zone, is now “limited commercial industrial,” eliminating yet another industrial zone from the township. The former General Motors Hyatt Roller Bearing plant across the street, which now boasts a golf course, was also rezoned in the 1990s to pave the way for new development.
The rezoning is the result of a consultant’s vision of a commercial center with retail and office space in a park like setting, with tree lined streets and a central architectural focus, such as a fountain, plaza, clock tower or landscaped boulevard.
The village, the consultant noted, would be a focal point that is pedestrian friendly, provide parking, shopping and a central location for residents to visit.
“We’re trying to make it more of a village theme, so there are streets and passageways for vehicles, rather than large, wide roadways that would encourage speeding,” explained Shamrock Enterprises planner and consultant Kevin O’Brian at a hearing held on the issue in February.
The township is expected to introduce a rezoning ordinance for the 28-acre property April 1, with a final reading and public hearing scheduled by the end of that month, Township Administrator John Laezza said late last week in an interview.
The change could potentially net the township $1 million in tax ratables, Mayor Sal Bonaccorso noted prior to the Planning Board decision.
This was the last in a series of meetings that took place on the zoning change, the first being held in February, the last March 19, when the public was allowed to ask questions on the issue.
Residents did express concerns about the impact the development of the property would have on Raritan Road, usually heavily congested leading up to the Central Avenue traffic signal during rush hour.
Township Engineer Richard O’Connor addressed this, explaining a consultant had been hired to ensure this was adequately addressed when a developer brought a proposal before the Planning Board. But O’Brian noted that an actual traffic impact study would not be done until a proposal is on the table.
“You don’t even get to that point until you rezone it,” O’Brian said at a March 15 meeting.
Other resident concerns included the possible size of stores included in any development project, which, officials said, would only encompass 25 percent of the 28-acre parcel of land.
O’Brian explained at the March 15 meeting that most uses allowed in the current commercial industrial zone would be permissible, but the plan calls for limiting the size of stores, especially “big box” stores.
The planner, for instance, noted that while most big box stores are usually 100,000 square-feet and up, the draft ordinance approving the rezoning ensured the limit is no larger than 80,000 square-feet.
Planning Board attorney Michael Cresitello pointed out March 15 that this was premature because specific plans and store size would be proposed by the developer and brought to the Planning board for approval. Exactly who the developer is, though, has thus far been kept under wraps.
The issue of rezoning, however, did not come without controversy. Resident Bill Caruso, former councilman and president of Clark Senior Housing, vigorously opposed redevelopment of the site from the beginning.
At one of the hearings, the resident was very outspoken about the town center vision, even going as far as saying he did not believe high-end stores would come to Clark and the mayor’s vision was merely “a dream.” He also said he felt the zoning change was a “done deal.”
Bonaccorso, on the other hand, did not shy away from Caruso’s allegations, addressing the resident’s concerns head on and quite bluntly.
The mayor argued that Caruso was against rezoning because he was involved in a business deal to bring a “solar field” to the site. That venture, however, was doomed from the start.
Bonaccorso said because Caruso presented himself as a representative of U.S. Gypsum to a particular solar company without the paper company’s approval, the township was threatened with a lawsuit.
The mayor also did not like that Caruso said the rezoning was a “done deal.”
Bonaccorso said if any resident had proof that he or any other township official is “in the pocket” of a developer, “I will personally drive you to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.”
“Just because you don’t agree with something, doesn’t mean those people are criminals or bad people,” he added.
But regardless, according to officials, it could be two or three years before the site is developed completely.
At the meeting last week township officials explained the path to development is actually a three or four step process.
The first is rezoning, or laying out the vision. That would include drafting and approving an ordinance defining the zone, including specifics such as store size, type of stores and the developments overall look, landscaping and building style that would be allowed.
Clark, according to state law, is completely within its legal right to rezone a property so it conforms with how they want a community to continue to develop. Although the usual option is for the developer or property owner to seek rezoning of a site, a municipality can alter their master plan to speed the process. But just in case there were any problems, the mayor sought out township attorney Joseph Triarsi for a legal opinion prior to moving forward.
“Our attorney agreed a master plan update was needed especially because this was a major redevelopment project we really needed to know how the community felt,” the mayor said.
In 2004 the township rezoned a section of Westfield Avenue as a Downtown Village Improvement District, but there has not been any new development in this area since that time, according to a planning report by O’Brian. He suggested a new limited commercial industrial district for the U.S. Gypsum property.
Exactly what type of retail establishments would work in this type of center is still to be determined, but Bonaccorso said he absolutely did not want big box stores involved.