RARITAN, NJ - The final site plan for a new apartment complex on Orlando Drive was approved by the Raritan Borough Planning Board after a several-year process.

The applicants, Orlando Drive Associates, LLC, have been trying to get approval to build on the site, located at 21 Orlando Drive and 20 Mill Street, since 2015 when hearings for preliminary site plan approval were held before the planning board. The preliminary site plan, which included 44 apartments, a retail component on the bottom floors and 95 parking spaces, was granted approval in early 2016.

Since then, the process has spanned over three different mayors, different planning board attorneys and various planning board members.

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To build, applicants must be granted final site plan approval by the planning board in a following application.

At the time of preliminary approval, the Flood Hazard Line and riparian buffer line along the properties, which sit along the Raritan River, had not been established with the Department of Environmental Protection, according to the resolution memorializing the grant of amended preliminary site plan and final site plan approval.

Following the preliminary site approval, the DEP determined the flood hazard line and riparian buffer line to be intrusive on the original plans, causing an amendment to the preliminary site approval, as the buildings needed to be scaled back.

In December 2018, the applicant proposed a final site plan with 40 apartment units, 1,400 square feet of retail space and 84 parking spaces.

“When the developer came back for final site plan approval, the planning board at the time made a decision that the final site plan proposal was not consistent with the preliminary site plan proposal, and therefore rejected the final site plan,” said planning board attorney Francis P. Linnus.

In addition to inconsistencies with the originally approved plans, the site plan did not meet the borough’s affordable housing requirements, which were introduced following the preliminary hearing. The board denied final site plan approval after hearings in April and May 2019.

The developer challenged that denial and brought the situation to the superior court in August 2019.

“The lawsuit alleged, among other things, that the board’s decision to deny the final site plans was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable, and that the court should order the board to approve the final site plan approval application,” the resolution said.

Throughout the superior court hearings, the borough and applicants aimed to reach a settlement, which was reached prior to the court’s decision in July 2020.

“Certainly instead of trying to do something else with (the property) and then also be facing a lawsuit, we brought them back and negotiated something that fits everyone’s ideas there with this potential apartment complex,” said Mayor Zachary Bray.

The final site plan includes two river-front buildings with 42 apartments, 85 parking spaces and no retail space.

“There were going to be storefronts below and apartments on top and we thought that was too much,” Bray said. “So we amended planning to just have the apartments and we had to amend parking a little bit. A little bit scaled down, so it is not overwhelming the riverfront views.”

In addition to the change in plans, two affordable housing units will be included in the building – one one-bedroom 800-square-foot apartment, and one two-bedroom 1,260-square-foot apartment. The affordable housing units are replacing the originally planned retail space and will be used to support the borough’s Fair Share requirement for affordable housing, according to the resolution.

The applicant also included a bike path that connects to the Somerset County Greenway.

The buildings are designed to be a Tudor architecture style that will fit in visually with the borough, said borough planner Angela Knowles.

“They added things like rain gardens, which is very nice,” she said. “The town is very aware of stormwater management and reducing flooding. Being that this is right on the riverfront, adding things like that is just going to help reduce any kind of onsite flooding.”

The buildings will be a welcome change for some residents, including planning board member Debra Thomas, who lives across the street from the site. Due to living and owning property within 200 feet of the potential building site, Thomas recused herself from the process as a planning board member, she said.

“It will be a real beautiful improvement to that riverfront area,” Thomas said. “The adjacent property is definitely an eyesore, and it’s been an eyesore to that whole neighborhood, so this is just a welcome edition.”