LIVINGSTON, NJ — The public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would establish a mixed-use overlay zone for two lots in the area of ShopRite on South Livingston Avenue will remain open until the next Livingston Township Council meeting on Oct. 5 as part of the council’s effort to gather as much public input on the controversial topic as possible prior to making a decision.

“We like hearing different opinions, especially as we consider things like this that have a myriad of different issues involved with them,” said Mayor Rudy Fernandez. “We want to listen to what everybody has to say, and we want to be able to really digest what everybody has to say. We want to give everybody the opportunity, and then allow us to have further discussion based upon the comments that we received.”

When the hearing opened to the public on Monday, council members and residents commented for nearly three hours on the proposed ordinance, which would permit the development of townhouses and a mixed-use building containing residential units, including affordable housing units, at 457 and 461 South Livingston Avenue.

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Although the ordinance does not approve any specific project, comments during Monday’s public hearing were centered on an active proposal from a builder to use the lots for the development of three townhomes and a three-story mixed-use building. According to the proposal, the mixed-use building would include five affordable units and four market-value units on the second and third floors with the ground level being used for either retail space or tenant amenities.

The opinions of those who spoke during the hearing were mixed, with common concerns like aesthetics, traffic, noise pollution and other issues being at the forefront of the conversation as well as positive comments from residents who felt this was an appropriate location for a building that would help the township satisfy its affordable housing obligations.

“It's bad enough we hear the street cleaners from ShopRite every night and the dumpsters going down over there,” said Jamie Scherago, who lives directly next to the proposed lot and was among the many residents concerned about how additional retail establishments would affect the neighborhood. “There are property owners within Livingston already who are having such a hard time renting their retail space, and that's going to take away from them at this point.”

Another resident, Craig Parker Jr., urged the council to “look at this as a space that doesn't fit the needs of something that the town may be required to have.”

“There are plenty of other opportunities and areas in the Township of Livingston for something like this,” he said. “I'm also very concerned and I hope that you will do duties that you were elected to do to protect us and protect our town.”

Parker also disagreed with those who made positive comments about the proposal, stating that anyone who supports the proposal does not “live in the area that would be truly affected by this.”

“Livingston is a residential bedroom community,” he said. “It is not a downtown feel, it is not a super walkable city as it is…We have two town centers, so to say that we need to have one center be bigger than the other or dedicate some sort of space does not make sense to me.”

Parker’s comments were made in reference to several callers who felt that Livingston would benefit from expanding its downtown areas and that the mixed-use building being proposed would help the township accomplish that.

“I'm in favor of the proposal because I want the town to have more of a downtown feel, and I think that this would be a perfect area for retail stores,” said one caller who identified himself as Eric. “I also think that it would be great for the town to have affordable housing in that area of town because it is near a lot of important places in town like a pharmacy, a grocery store, a bus route, some restaurants, the high school and then some places of worship.”

Others in favor of the proposal felt that lower-income families should have access to the greater education that the affordable units would give them and that affordable housing provides an opportunity to bring diversity into the town.

Anthony Bruno, whose family has lived at 457 South Livingston Avenue for nearly 40 years, was one of the few residents of the affected neighborhood who spoke in support of the ordinance.

“When we moved there, it was never this paradise or utopia of a suburb—it was always next to ShopRite, and we were on a county road,” said Bruno, who said he benefitted from living in the area due to its proximity to the bus stop. “It really lends itself to being able to live in a really nice community where you can access things that have that downtown feel.

"Some of these folks [that would live there]—whether they work remote or work in Manhattan or work in the city as COVID subsides—there's going to be limited traffic because you can catch the bus literally right across the street...We aren’t talking about building 150 units; we're talking about really manicured, well-thought-out-looking townhomes. We're not talking about something this is going to look like a tenement building. This is going to make the area look really nice, and it's going to lend itself to creating more business opportunity for ShopRite and other businesses that are going to be there."

As someone knows first-hand the noise that ShopRite creates in the area, Bruno assured his neighbors that “putting in really nice townhomes is going to actually insulate the folks that are on board and make it feel more like a community.”

“There were lots of callers talking about how you know they lived here all their lives,” he said. “South Livingston Avenue has always been busy, and the traffic coming out of ShopRite is ridiculous. There's somebody out there all the time, so let's not lie to ourselves and make it sound like it's this beautiful cul-de-sac. It is a county road. Why not utilize this and take the opportunity to actually make something that fits into that model and ultimately will blend into the rest of that area?"

Prior to opening the hearing, the mayor reiterated the purpose of considering such an ordinance, stating that the ordinance is not only in line with the township’s Master Plan—which recommends that Livingston expand its two “semi-centers” by providing “more mixed uses”—but also helps the township satisfy some of its affordable housing obligations.

Additionally, he explained, approving the ordinance as currently proposed could also help the township avoid a potential lawsuit from the builder in the future.

“Towns are required by law to provide certain levels of affordable housing,” he said. “This has been going on for years, [and] every municipality in the state deals with it…

“Under the law in New Jersey, builders are allowed to bring what's called a ‘builder’s remedy suit’—and to the extent that you are not complying with the state numbers, they're allowed to file suit and basically require you to rezone properties so that they can help you through higher densities and meet the affordable housing obligations imposed by the state.”

Rather than “waiting to have the courts impose numbers” on the township, Fernandez explained that Livingston traditionally tries to “negotiate a density that is most reasonable with the understanding that if we don't settle it, then we're going to have a court-imposed obligation on us.”

“In the cases that we have not settled with them, the court-imposed obligations were higher than numbers that we probably could have settled at,” he said.

Township Attorney Sharon Weiner—who felt “from a planning perspective” that this would be a good use of the space on South Livingston Avenue—reiterated that the township could potentially be looking at more density and higher buildings in the future if the zoning overlay does not pass.

“Every time we've been sued, we never come out ahead, and that's why we’ve been trying to settle these cases before we get sued,” said Weiner. “It's not going to go away. The developer has walked the land, he wants to develop it, and we're trying to keep the numbers is as low as possible and keep some control over what goes there. But if we don't pass the ordinance, then we'll get sued and it'll be settled by the courts and we will have no control, as we've seen in the past.”

Fernandez also clarified that the ordinance does not change the zoning in the area, which will remain a residential zone, and does not approve the project in question. If the ordinance is approved by the council, it would then be up to the Livingston Planning Board to assess any subsequent project applications.

“This does not approve the project—all this does is approve a zoning overlay that a builder can then make an application to the planning board,” said Fernandez. “Once it goes to the planning board, that's where all the issues are brought up—traffic, parking, ingress and egress.

“At the planning board level, that’s where the engineers and the traffic experts will bring in testimony, and then the planning board will decide whether the project is safe, whether they can have this many units, what should the layout be if at all, how should traffic be addressed…Those are incredibly valid issues. So number one, if this ordinance passes, and then number two, if the developer makes an application, that's where those issues would be addressed.”

Fernandez added that if a builder makes an application, notices will be sent to all residents living within 200 feet of the property so that they are aware of the proposal and have an opportunity to voice any concerns.

“The planning board meetings are all public, so the hearings with the testimony and the witnesses and the people coming in either supporting or objecting to things that are being done are all done publicly, either via Zoom or—hopefully sooner rather than later—back in person at Town Hall,” he said.

Residents are invited to participate in the conversation on the ordinance as the public hearing continues on Oct. 5. CLICK HERE to read the ordinance in its entirety. 

An aerial view of the proposed area can be seen in the photos above. More information will be provided as it becomes available.

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