Real Estate

Watchung Opposes Mixed-Use Development on Connell Property

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Steven Warner, who represents Watchung, lets the council know the Borough objects to the mixed-use residential development proposed for the Connell property. Credits: Barbara Rybolt
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Watchung Mayor Steven K. Pote listens intently to Attorney Steven K. Warner discuss the borough's objection to the rezoning of the Connell property to include mixed-use residential units. Credits: Barbara Rybolt
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DIscussing whether to stay or go are, on the left, Watchung Mayor Stephen K. Pote and Attorney Steven K. Warner. Credits: Barbara Rybolt
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BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Citing traffic issues and worries about sewer capacity, the township was put on notice last week that Watchung objects to the rezoning of the Connell Property to allow a mixed-use residential development with an affordable housing component.

Attorney Steven Warner, a partner with Ventura, Miesowitz, Keough & Warner, let the council know of the borough's objections. He was retained by Watchung after the Township Planning Board adopted a Master Plan Reexamination Report on May 17 that recommends the rezoning of 500 Connell Drive, to permit a mixed use residential development project with affordable housing units. It is currently zoned for an office building. 

Warner came to the May 23 meeting with Watchung Mayor Stephen K. Pote and two others from the borough. The Master Plan Reexamination Report can be found on the township's website.

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Warner spoke to the council during the public hearing on an ordinance "Amending, Revising and Supplementing the Township and Use Procedure Ordinance to Amend the Affordable Housing Regulations Set Forth in Part 18A." While this ordinance does not specifically mention the Connell property, should the recommended zoning changes take place, it in theory could apply to the 500 Connell Drive property.

Watchung borough's opposition includes, but is not limited to, both the traffic that will be generated by the addition to the Connell property of a mixed-use residential property  and "the sewer capacity," he said.

Township Attorney Joe Sordillo said the council hasn't yet received the Master Plan Re-examination, but expected it to be on the agenda for the next meeting. As for the contents of the ordinance, these are "general affordable housing ordinances in connection with Fair Share" settlements -- one is a "set-aside ordinance," which requires any development of five units or more to set aside for affordable housing either 20% of the housing in a development in which homes will be sold or 15% of the housing in rental developments. The second ordinance amends the affordable housing regulations to be consistent with the terms of the settlement agreement reached with the Fair Sharing Housing Center. 

"If all goes as planned, these two ordinances will have nothing to do with Connell. There will be a separate implementing plan that will be presented" for that property, said Sordillo.

Warner said from his perspective, "these can be seen as facilitating the project by Connell ... I want to confirm my understanding that there will be a first reading on an implementing ordinance in the future."

Sordillo said, "the Master Plan has not yet been drafted." After which the Master Plan will have to be ratified by the governing body and no one knows "when it will happen."

Council President Marc Faecher, the point person for affordable housing for the township, said the original master plan "contemplated there would be another office tower at 500 Connell Drive. We are talking about the substitution of the residential use for what was going to be an office use."

It was agreed that Warner would keep in contact with the clerk and that he and Watchung would be kept up to date on meetings related to rezoning of the Connell property.

The public first heard about the possibility of mixed-use housing replacing a previously approved office building at the Nov. 10, 2015 meeting of the Township Council. 

During the conference session, Shane Connell gave a Power Point presentation on the Connell Development and indicated the firm was interested in adding multi-family residences and retail properties to the mix. He suggested they could add 312 to 328 mixed-use residential rental units, plus a parking garage to the area that was zoned and approved for an office building. To do this, the township would have to rezone the area. To read about the meeting, visit the Township's website.

According to the minutes of the Oct. 4, 2016 meeting, the  Court set a Fairness Hearing date of Oct. 17, and wanted the Settlement Agreements for Locust, Kings, Movie Theater and Connell approved at that hearing. This led to the township setting a special meeting date of Oct. 13, to deal with the matter, since the next scheduled meeting of the Council was the day after the Fairness Hearing.

According to the minutes of the Oct. 13, which started shortly after 6 p.m., the meeting was 13 minutes long, during which the council  adopted resolutions approving the Settlement Agreements with: Berkeley Heights Developers for the Kings property; Berkeley Developers for the Locust Property and Lockhorn for the movie theatre property. The council also approved the the Developer's Agreement with Connell for 500 Connell Drive. 

The day after the Fairness Hearing was held, Oct. 18, 2016, Faecher reported the results of the hearing, including further actions to be taken and deadlines to be met during the the Township Council Reports portion of the meeting. 

The next meeting of the council is scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 13, in Town Hall, 29 Park Ave. 

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