SPRINGFIELD – Residents living near a 9.6 acre parcel of land along Tree Top Drive that is owned by the Board of Education are concerned efforts to rezone this acreage will seriously impact the value of their homes.
People living on Tree Top Drive and adjacent streets voiced their concerns to LocalSource in the last two weeks, pointing out that, if the zoning change to residential is approved, their homes will lose equity because the view will be obstructed and any future homes constructed will not be of the same value as those already there.
While the complaining residents did not want their names revealed, they did express serious concern about the direction the school board was headed.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Davino said Monday, June 23, this concern is premature because there are no plans at this point to build any homes.
“Just because the zoning is changed does not mean anything. We don’t know if anything will ever be built there. All the board is doing is following through with the agreement made with the township when the turf field agreement was signed several years ago,” said the superintendent.
“It would be disingenuous of us if the board did not create the greatest value for this land. Rezoning makes that happen and ensures it is viable property,” Davino added.
“We are doing due diligence here, in order to try and recoup as much revenue as possible, to offset the bonding the township did to pay for the turf field,” he added, noting, “This is in the best interest of taxpayers.”
The property involves land that has been under remediation for contaminants by the school board, as required by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Davino explained, noting that, at some time in the distant past, the acreage was used as a baseball field and asphalt deposits were left behind.
“These deposits are considered contaminants by the DEP and had to be remediated, in order for the site to be considered for a zoning change to residential,” the superintendent said, explaining how this process evolved.
“The county undertook phase one of this process, which evaluated what type of contaminants were in the soil,” Davino said, explaining that the cost of phase two was borne by the school board.
“This phase determined there was a ballpark there in the ‘60s and asphalt was left on the site, which eventually left contaminants in the soil,” he said.
The DEP, Davino said, informed the school board what had to be done to remediate the acreage and this was completed under their guidance.
“We began remediating this land more than a year ago,” Davino added, explaining that, without a zoning change, this particular acreage could only be used to build a school or school-related facility.
Davino also pointed out that this particular route was undertaken by the board “under the direction of the township council at the time.” Although that particular governing body is no longer in power, the superintendent said the school board was obligated to move forward with the agreement made with it at that time.
“Incorporated into that agreement was the 9.2 acres on Tree Top Drive, which the school board owns and agreed to remediate and sell,” said Davino, explaining that any money coming out of this sale would be applied to the township’s outstanding bond debt, incurred by them to construct the field.
“At the time, the governing body approved of us cleaning up the property and selling it so the revenue could be applied against this outstanding bond debt for the field, which the township assumed on our behalf,” the superintendent said.
Although the school board expected its application to be heard last week by the Springfield Zoning Board of Adjustment, the entire matter was abruptly rescheduled late last week to Tuesday, July 15.
Davino said former Mayor Ziad Shehady was an important part of the effort to find a way to build the $3.2 million turf field, noting the school board worked closely with him for a long time to ensure the field could finally be built.
“This was a six-year effort,” the superintendent added, explaining that, as a result, the school district has complete control and use of the field, even though other township sports teams can use the facility.
The school board is seeking a variance to subdivide this acreage into a four lots, which eventually will be developed, three of which could be developed as single-family residential lots. The fourth lot, consisting of seven acres, will remain open space and wetlands.
According to the site plan application, in order to facilitate this development, a road will have to be built to access the three 27,000 to 30,000 square-foot lots in the southern portion of the acreage.
The school board also indicated in its application to the Zoning Board that it will develop retaining walls, grade, fill and clear the land where required. In addition, it will develop infrastructure and utility connections as necessary to properly develop the acreage and proposed access road. Also planned is street lighting, signage, curbing and landscaping.
In addition to needing major subdivision approval, the Board of Education also will have to obtain a “use variance” in order for any residential homes to be built there, now or in the future, which is currently prohibited in this zone.
A few years back, township officials believed they came out on the short end of the stick regarding this 9.2 acre parcel of land, when it was discovered the acreage was contaminated. Therefore, the governing body decided the land swap was not in its best interests and turned down the deal that would have traded the township-owned property in front of the high school for the Tree Top Drive parcel of land.
A year before it was discovered the land was contaminated, Shehady supported a land swap, telling taxpayers that as many as nine homes could be built on the 9.2 acres, which would boost tax revenue.
The agreement with the school board was the result of Shehady and two other Republican township council members, Jerry Fernandez and Mark Krauss, who defended the township’s position of bonding the cost.
In order to bond the millions needed to build the turf field, Shehady needed the two Democrat minority members of the governing body, David Amlen and Rich Huber, to agree to the deal. Amlen and Huber, however, were not so easily convinced, because they felt the township was rushing into bonding the project. They suggested the township have a referendum on the matter and allow voters to make the decision.
On the night the bond ordinance was introduced in February 2012, an energized crowd of students, athletes, parents and supporters of the measure came out in force, jamming Town Hall, sporting signs and vocally expressing their support of a turf field. They met head on with a contingent of objectors and skeptics who rallied just as loudly against the move, at times becoming quite raucous during the meeting.
Although Huber said he was “nobody’s puppet” at this meeting, he did relent and give his approval to the bond ordinance. A few weeks later, when the final reading of the bond ordinance took place, the measure passed unanimously, with Amlen relenting and approving the bonding for the field.