CRANFORD — State Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick is urging residents to continue to voice their opposition as the clock ticks toward the township’s deadline to draft a plan that will satisfy its Mount Laurel housing obligation.
Bramnick delivered this message to about 60 Cranford residents Monday, July 9. It is a plea he makes at every town hall meeting he hosts and likely will repeat on Thursday, Sept. 20, at a rally on the steps of the Statehouse Annex, which he announced last week.
Bramnick said public outcry can effect change, and possibly stave off plans like that presented by Hartz Mountain Industries to build 905 apartments on a 30.5-acre property at 750 Walnut Ave.
“I am going to say, as a trial lawyer, that public sentiment has some effect on court decisions,” Bramnick, a Republican from Plainfield who represents the 21st Legislative District, including Cranford, said in a July 10 interview.
“The law is technically the law, but there is always discretion among courts, among judges, in the judges’ purview. The more the judges hear about the outrage by citizens, interpretation of the law can change. It may take other things into consideration the Supreme Court hasn’t mentioned. So, loud voices that make sense can affect even courts, in my judgment.”
Although Bramnick also has spoken to concerned residents in Basking Ridge and Watchung, Cranford has emerged as one of the main battlegrounds between those who champion court-mandated affordable housing and those who decry overdevelopment. Developers who seek to invoke “builder’s remedy” lawsuits to get their projects approved take on towns that are concerned about what these projects will mean for their infrastructure and schools, tax rates and property values.
“Say No to 750 Walnut” signs began to crop on local lawns last year after Hartz Mountain unveiled its plans to build on its underutilized property. The complex of offices and commercial space sits on the boundary with Clark on the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road, bordered by a freight rail line to the northwest and Hyatt Hills Golf Complex to the southwest.
A Superior Court judge ruled the town has until Dec. 31 to satisfy its Mount Laurel — or affordable housing — obligations.
The issue stems from a 1975 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling involving the town of Mount Laurel in which the court declared every municipality in the state is obligated to zone for its own “fair share” of “affordable” housing, to be reviewed every decade.
Bramnick traces the issue back to the state Democratically-controlled state Legislature, which he said has refused to step in and wrest it away from the courts.
If the issue were put it into the hands of lawmakers, he would like to see a more sensible approach to addressing Mount Laurel housing. He wants local planning boards and master plans to again dictate what is constructed in their towns and favors programs that would “rehabilitate housing and urban centers” instead of building new housing. He also champions a regional approach rather than a town-by-town solution.
“Let’s assume we need 5,000 units in central Jersey,” Bramnick said. “Fine. Let’s get a regional planning board to determine where they go. But to say Cranford needs this many and Scotch Plains needs this many, and each town has to litigate on its own — absurd.”
Whether he’s speaking to waiters in Watchung, bus drivers in Basking Ridge or crane operators at the Kilkenny House in Cranford, Bramnick said he hears frustration and concern from people across party lines.
“I don’t go in there and tell them what we face,” he said. “We face a Democratic Legislature that supports the concept of affordable housing even if it involves court-imposed high-density housing.
“That is where the Democratic majority is and you, as a resident of Cranford, will suffer the consequences of the heavy Democratic majority’s position on thousands of new units in Cranford. That’s it. Until the Democratically controlled Legislature realizes this is bipartisan effort against this type of court-imposed housing, they won’t do anything. I simply try to raise their voices.”
Hartz Mountain was scheduled to appear before the Cranford Planning Board on Wednesday, July 18. At the May 16 meeting, board members heard testimony in the developer’s application to have 750 Walnut Ave. rezoned for “inclusionary residential development.” The proposed site of the apartment units is currently zoned commercial and allows for uses such as professional offices, health care facilities, distribution centers and research laboratories.
The 750 Walnut Avenue property was once a bustling complex of buildings that housed Johnson & Johnson, Bank of America and other global giants. LabCorp occupies about 80,000 square feet in the rear of one building and PSE&G occupies about 22,000 square feet, primarily for a call center, according to James Rhatican, vice president of land use and development for Hartz Mountain. Other than that, he said, there’s a “very substantial vacancy” in the complex.
Whether residents of Cranford, like those who created ad hoc groups such as Keep Cranford Quaint, can stave off Hartz Mountain is unclear. Until then, Bramnick said he will continue to speak to local groups and urge them to keep speaking up.
“I think the more the courts, the Legislature and the town fathers hear from the growing number of residents, and the voice of both Democrats and Republicans grows around the state, and mayors as well, that you’re going to see some changes here,” Bramnick said. “Now, the extent of the changes I don’t know, but when you see Democrats come to a town hall meeting and agreeing with Republicans, you know you have something the Legislature is going to have to pay attention to the town fathers and town mothers.”
Photo Courtesy of J.D. Bryden