BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Former Councilman Marc Faecher cautioned that the "Main Street" plan presented to the council and public at an April meeting of the council offered both opportunities and risks to the township.
Calling the Connell Company a “good partner in town” that “builds a good project,” Faecher told the council it must do what is in the best interests of Berkeley Heights when deciding how to respond to the plan, which involves rezoning a substantial portion of the property that lies between Route 78, Valley Road, and Plainfield Avenue.
Faecher, who led the successful affordable housing negotiations for the township during his three years on the council, detailed a number of objections to simply endorsing the latest Connell Park rezoning plan. They included: a tax appeal in progress; possible lawsuit from neighboring Watchung; need to change the ordinance that re-zoned 12 acres of the property to help satisfy the township’s affordable housing requirements, and the potential impact of job growth impacting the next round of affordable housing.
In particular he reminded the council the current mixed use zone on the property, which allows for up to 85,000 square feet of retail space on the site, “was not a concept plan,” it was very “prescriptive,” required an ordinance to be passed and is part of the township’s affordable settlement agreement with the state.
If the site were to be rezoned, that would open the door for more retail establishments on the property. In fact, the plan presented to the council includes a number of restaurants, as well as a free-standing specialized grocery store. Faecher suggested council members “think long and hard” about whether that would be in the best interests of the township.
Which doesn’t mean the plans should be scrapped – there is definitely room for the two sides to negotiate.
Connell has filed a tax appeal for its site, arguing they are paying too much. If the township should loose, it “would be devastating to the town,” so Faecher suggested a settlement of the tax appeal “is in order.”
Facher said Watchung, which threatened to sue the township over the first plan, may decide to do so if there is “further intensity” of use on the site. The cost of defending such a lawsuit should not fall on the township, it should be picked up by Connell, he said.
Earlier in the evening, council members discussed the need for the all-volunteer Fire Department to replace its 1994 ladder truck, which will cost between $1.3 and $1.7 million.
Faecher said the 328-unit residential buildings, plus the office and hotel buildings, are the highest buildings in town and “they need that ladder truck more than any other place in town.”
Finally, if re-zoning is granted, the additional retail establishments could have a long-term impact on future affordable housing numbers. The Connell development itself generated job growth and the Fair Share Housing group used those numbers “severely against us … and cost us in the last round … We can expect to get a big number in the next round of Affordable Housing” which will come up in 2025, Faecher said.
This could impact the Nokia property, which might be able to use it as an opportunity to develop its property. “I would hate to see all these units thrust upon us at Nokia because of that development at Connell in 2025,” he said.
He urged to council to “carefully think it out,” while making sure the township “gets major considerations coming back” and their actions will not create a “problem for the next round of housing.” To accomplish that, he said, is to have the governing body involved in all aspects of the decision because there are changes to be made to the ordinance, master plan and the developer’s agreement.