RARITAN, NJ - A resolution for a proposed luxury apartment complex in Raritan did not receive approval from the borough council to move forward.
During a scheduled presentation at the November meeting, Michael O’Grodnick, an attorney representing Orlando Heights Realty LLC, briefly explained the scope of a development project being proposed at the intersection of Orlando Drive, Mill Street and Thompson Street.
The main property site for the proposed apartment complex is the former Zeus Industrial Products plant. Additionally, the attorney, a partner with the Somerville law firm of Savo, Schalk, Gillespie, O’Grodnick & Fisher, explained that three other pieces of property would need to be acquired to move forward – Raritan Laundromat, Skylands Energy Service and one two-family home.
O’Grodnick did not identify the address of the private home, but he did say the owners of the properties had been contacted about the project.
The applicant was seeking the go-ahead from the council to bring its plan for luxury apartments and an extension of the greenway begun by Lena, the neighboring apartment complex, to the land use board for further scrutiny.
“We’re asking for approval for this to go to the planning board,” O’Grodnick said. “This is an exciting project that meets the goals of your master plan.”
Approving the resolution would have put in motion an investigation by the land use board to determine if the project property constitutes a non-condemnation “area in need of redevelopment.”
O’Grodnick confirmed that the options to enter into a PILOT program and to condemn parcels of land needed to complete the project would be considered.
Mayor Charles McMullin clarified that they’re requesting the “right to condemn” versus actually condemning the land.
“It’s similar to what we did with Block 81,” he said.
In New Jersey, labeling property as an area in need of redevelopment is a tool which may be used by municipalities to turn around stagnating, deteriorating, underutilized or “undeveloped” properties that are not being properly maintained. However, if the property were to be condemned and designated for redevelopment, it could open the door for Orlando Heights Realty to acquire the land it doesn’t already own under eminent domain, which gives the government or its agent the right to acquire private property for public use with a payment of compensation at fair market value.
The other option, the PILOT program, exists under New Jersey's Redevelopment Act. PILOT – Payments in Lieu of Taxes – is offered to municipalities that have areas in need of redevelopment or rehabilitation in order to promote community growth and progress.
Under the PILOT program, the borough would be able to grant the developer a temporary exemption from the traditional property tax. Instead of paying property taxes, the developer would make an annual PILOT payment to the borough that is much lower than what the tax would be.
O’Grodnick showed a rendering of the proposed apartment complex and explained to the council that he had the site plan engineer and architect with him to answer any questions the council may have.
Councilman Paul Giraldi expressed his skepticism of the project. He said he couldn’t imagine the scope of the project O’Grodnick described fitting on the grounds of the four properties he mentioned.
“No way that’s going to fit,” he said.
Giraldi also shared concerns about the laundromat and surrounding homes and businesses.
After the council meeting, Chris Connors, owner of Raritan Laundromat, said she was approached by the developer.
“I didn’t know any of the men at the meeting, but the new owner of the Zeus property contacted me and said he wanted to buy my property, but he didn’t make an offer,” she said.
Connors has owned her property for 33 years and knows the issues there.
“I told him (the Zeus owner) that it’s a flood area and it’s contaminated,” she said. “He said he wasn’t worried about that.”
None of the council members had questions for the engineer or architect, so a vote was called.
The measure failed, 4–2, with councilmen Zachary Bray and Nicolas Carra casting the only yes votes.
“The resolution would have tasked the land use board with looking into whether the proposed redevelopment project was appropriate for the former Zeus and neighboring properties and if the area was indeed in need of redevelopment,” Carra said.
He added that one of the reasons he supported the resolution was that the property has sat vacant since Zeus moved its operations to Branchburg.
Carra also said that putting the decision in the proper hands is important.
“Even if the end result was that the proposed apartment building was not approved or the area was not deemed in need of redevelopment, when it comes to planning, zoning and redevelopment, I believe the council should consider what the land use board concludes in its role of fact finding,” he said.
Another major reason for developing the site, Carra said, is its proximity to the former Stop & Shop location.
“An increase in population near the Raritan Mall could help increase chances of bringing a new grocery store to town,” he said.
Carra, who chairs the finance committee, added that his biggest concern is tax revenue.
“We have plans to construct two new buildings for our police, fire, and public works departments,” he said. “In order to continue maintaining the current level of services we offer while we expand our town's operations, we need to find new ways to increase tax revenue while avoiding an increase in taxes on residents.”
Asked why he voted against moving the project forward Giraldi said, “ l needed a little more of a heads up.”
He explained that usually prior to a proposed project presentation, the council would get a packet of information to review.
O’Grodnick did not reply to a request for further information.