CHATHAM, NJ – By a vote of three to two, the Township Committee approved a resolution asking the planning board to review the existing limitations on the size of homes in relation to lot size in all the township residential zones, especially R3 and R4 on Thursday night.
It took two and a half hours of lively comments from the public and, at times, testy discussion by committee members for the committee to make that decision.
When it came time for the first Hearing of the Citizens on agenda items only, a number of residents stepped up to the microphone to offer their perspective on the issue of house size – especially on smaller lots which are usually in the R-3 and R-4 zones.
A number of those residents came from the Woodlawn Drive area where a recent settlement in the State of NJ via Township of Chatham vs. East Park Builders case, in which all fines were dismissed as part of the settlement, provoked residents and inspired them to attend the meeting. They spoke about how the settlement favored the builder and ignored the property owners.
Others came to urge the committee to not change the rules, but increase their enforcement. One of the first people to speak was Rez Estevez of Southern Boulevard (seen at 30 minutes on the video). She said including the R-3 zone in the resolution is “large government creep … People come to Chatham Township for so many reasons, one of which is to have high-quality housing” that is ready to move in. She recommended existing zoning rules be enforced, rather than variances being issued, except in exceptional circumstances. “Don’t raise my property taxes. Do not limit the ability of homeowners to improve their lots or sell them to developers to improve them,” she said, adding she expected all the Republicans to vote against the resolution.
Sam Sealy of Edgewood Road in the borough told the committee he is having “severe problems in my neighborhood,” and when he has called the township he has been told “water runs downhill, tough luck.” He is looking at a "sizable five figure repair" to fix the problem which starts with water that begins “at Pine Street and runs downhill.” His remarks begin at about 33 minutes on the video.
At 36 minutes on the video, Green Village resident Dan Miller said “Many years ago, many of us didn’t want to see the McMansions,” but that is in the past. “Because of what has been done, you can’t now take it out on the backs of the few” who couldn’t participate in the building boom and “take away their property rights.” He suggested the committee not vote for the resolution and, if they want the Master Plan reviewed, “have it done by the professionals…leave things the way they are.”
Todd Goodman of Woodlawn Drive said at 44 minutes on the tape, he was astonished to find the resolution regarding rezoning on the agenda immediately after the township let developers know “if you come to Chatham as a builder you are free to violate the code at will … you made a laughing stock of the residents, sent builders laughing all the way to the bank and all in the name of monetizing property.”
Kristen Haradun, who lives on Maple Road, said her own property has been impacted by the East Park Builders on Woodlawn from water and mud runoff from the site. She said she expected the builder to pay the $200,000 in fines which he incurred from the township as well as pay for the repair of damaged pipes that direct water runoff from his building site, which she said she was told cost $114,000. Because of the settlement, the builder does not have to pay for either, leaving the cost of rebuilding the drainage system for the taxpayers to pay. Her remarks begin at about 57 minutes.
At about one hour into the video, Genevieve Castelino, an architect who lives on Ormont, said she would like to see the end of “the politicization of this town’s land, resources, aesthetics and planning.” She said it is possible to monetize one's home by thoughtful building and that it’s time to find a balance between letting residents monetize their property without changing the character of the town. She urged residents to “get off social media,” and stop riling up people.
Committee member Karen Swartz took umbrage at those remarks and said she thought Castelino was “talking to me ... It’s not a political maneuver to say we want to live in a bigger house or I want to protect the future buyer of a home.”
Castelino said, “This town is a balance of bungalows, big houses and houses of various sizes, and we have to maintain a balance. It wasn’t the size of the house, it was the disruption that was created in building those size of houses … I will monetize my property, but do so with the interest of town in mind.” She urged the committee to read the Master Plan.
Carol Wipf of Woodlawn Drive said, “What East Park Builders has done to my neighborhood could negatively affect my capacity and the capacity of other people here to monetize their homes … My neighborhood has been raped.” The damage to her neighborhood is “the result of what they have been allowed to do … the slack enforcement of the code,” in particular the noise ordinance. “If the noise ordinance had been enforced in 2014, we wouldn’t be here tonight talking about East Park Builders.” See her remarks at approximately one hour, 10 minutes on the video.
Christina Mott, who lives on Nicholson Drive, said at one hour and 13 minutes on the tape she was “disappointed” East Park Builders were given a “free ride.” She thanked the committee for bringing up the issue of home size and argued, “By protecting the aesthetics of Chatham Township, we are nurturing the investments all of us have made here.”
Carol Bolton who lives on Yarmouth said she wanted to know why the resolution has come up now and how many people are complaining about “excessively large homes … We may have small lots, but we deserve the same opportunities afforded to other people in the town.” Her remarks begin about one hour 15 minutes on the tape.
Miller came back to the microphone and said “it seems like an enforcement issue.”
Others continued to speak, with the same themes coming up – property rights vs. the zoning laws, discrimination against seniors, ordinances that seem to be unenforced by the township, for whatever reason, just to name a few.
Move to Table the Resolution
The resolution was read around one hour and 36 minutes into the video and it was time for the committee to discuss it, the first motion was by Swartz, who moved to table the resolution, “in light of resolution 2019-070” which tasks the Planning Board to do the work necessary to make whatever changes are necessary to bring the township into compliance with the approved Affordable Housing Settlement.
Her motion to table was seconded by Committee member Curt Ritter.
Swartz called the resolution on zoning “an egregious overreach of the Township Committee” that is “very nebulous” and will cost the township money. She called the Planning Board “on balance unseasoned,” and said, “By and large, I’m hearing right now 3,000 houses are going to be inspected by a volunteer board.”
Committee members Ritter and Swartz argued against even looking at the zoning regulations and made a case for the ability of property owners to “monetize” their homes without having their property rights violated.
On the other side of the issue were Deputy Mayor Michael Kelly and Committee member Tracy Ness, who supported the resolution.
Kelly said after listening to the residents speak he is “more convinced this is an important issue that needs to be looked into.” He also said he thought the committee needed “to be more responsive” to the residents' concerns.
As for the planning board, which is made up of volunteers from the community, he said: “I expect them to give advice without breaking the budget.”
He and Swartz are both members of the planning board and will be able to share their opinions with the other members Kelly said. The planning board has access to experienced experts and “it is reasonable to expect them to give good advice without breaking the budget.” The committee does not want to “micromanage” the planning board or adopt a resolution that tells them what to do in precise terms. Kelly recommended asking the board to take a look at the zoning and come back to the committee with a report. He said, “I sense a deep concern, frustration and anger,” within the community about the issue and it needs to be looked at.
Ness said the exact same topic had been brought up at the committee last year and the committee voted unanimously to take the issue to the planning board. The board put it into a special committee which never reported back to the planning board, so the board never reported back to the committee. The resolution is another attempt to find out what the board thinks about whether there is an issue with the current zoning.
“I’m a little concerned with some of the comments I heard tonight,” she said, comments such as “eminent domain; You’re going to take away our property; You are not going to let us build on our property; We’re going to sue,” and more.
Ness explained the zoning issue was looked at in 2005, 2006, and 2007, at which time there were long discussions by the committee. The question went to the planning board and the board came back with a recommendation for four changes: a 25-foot setback for the second floor; no front-facing garage; a maximum width of the home to be built and a perimeter of trees. She said the same complaints that were being made about adjusting zoning regulations and property rights were heard at that time. In the end, the perimeter of trees was required and a width requirement based on the lot size for the R-3 zone.
Township Engineer John Ruschke said the width requirement involved a sliding scale where the permitted width of the house depends upon the width of the lot.
Ness said the zoning board has asked in 2017, 2018 and 2019 for the township committee to take a look at this issue. “If the zoning board is asking for the township committee … to look at this, I would like to understand what is the impetus behind that.” She said her vote would be in favor of having the planning board take a look and see what they come back with. “To bury our head in the sand and say the horse has left the barn, is really not serving our residents,” she concluded.
Swartz’ reply was, “With all due respect, you’re asking for class warfare” because people who have moved into R-3 and R-4 zones have built it out, but for residents who have lived here a long time, they are being told the rules are changing and they won't be able to monetize their homes.
At about one hour and 56 minutes in the video, Swartz and Ness talked over each other, while residents in the audience started making comments. Order was restored and the meeting continued.
Kelly said he called the zoning board to find out the rationale behind the zoning board request, and said that as a body they “are concerned about the creeping change to the aesthetics and demographics of what constitutes our town.”
Swartz said, “They just don’t have to grant the variances.”
Kelly said the members of the board are trying to project out 10-15 years to see what is going to happen. As for zoning changes impacting the tax rate, Kelly pointed out the municipal tax rate is lower than it was in 2007.
Swartz said, “It doesn’t have to change because we are consistently refreshing our inventory” of homes. As for how other communities do things, she said in the past that has been checked out and the township is right in the middle, and the decision was not to make any changes.
Ritter brought the discussion back to tabling the resolution and questioned the resolution as it was written for not having sufficient backup information to some statements. He asserted the people who supported the resolution earlier “came from the Woodlawn area,” as opposed to those who didn’t support it.
Kelly disagreed – he said he kept “score,” of those who spoke and support for the resolution came from all areas of the township.
Ritter continued to press to table the resolution, “The way this was written in a vacuum, it warrants” another look and rewriting. He asked what percentage of the township was R-3 and R-4 zones and couldn’t get a specific answer.
At about two hours and seven minutes, Township Attorney Albert Cruz tried to stop the discussion and refocus the conversation on the motion to table the resolution that was before the committee. “If the motion succeeds, this discussion is not necessary,” he said.
Ritter disagreed, saying his comments might change someone’s mind about tabling.
At two hours and 15 minutes, Mayor Tayfun Selen tried to focus the conversation and said, “We send this to the planning board. If the planning board comes back to us making a recommendation that will reduce the home values, I will not support it. But I will support to take advantage of the talent that we have on the planning board, including professionals and maybe outside vendors, within reason … I want to get a recommendation that we can discuss here and vote it up or vote it down.” He then pledged to vote against the motion to table.
Ritter thanked him for making that pledge and said, “That makes it a moot point” and it should be tabled because if the planning board comes back with any resolution or proposal that restricts property owners in the R-3 or R-4 zone from doing anything, Selen would vote “No,” as would he (Ritter) and Swartz. Tabling it now would save time and money. Swartz continued to argue that resolution should be tabled until the motion to table was called.
Ritter and Swartz voted to table the resolution, while Ness, Kelly and Selen voted against tabling the resolution.
A new motion was proposed and the process of amending the resolution began. Some 14 changes were made in the original resolution.
The final resolution read:
Resolution of the Township Committee of the Township of Chatham Formally Referring This Matter to the Planning Board
Whereas the members of the Township Committee are responsible to act in the long-term best interest of the entire Township; and
Whereas the role and responsibility of the Planning board, in addition to hearing specific applications for construction, is to advise the Township Committee on the long-term planning goals of the Township; and
Whereas the Township Committee relies on the dedicated members of the Planning Board and its professional staff for the planning advice and expertise to provide the best guidance for the ongoing development of the Township.
Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Township Committee does formally request the Planning Board to review the existing limitations on the size of homes in the township in relation to lot size, especially in the R-3 and R-4 Zones, and to report back to the Township Committee on the effectiveness of the existing limits, and to recommend any changes that would benefit the long-term best interests of the residents, of the Township both positively and negatively.
The resolution was approved, by a vote of 3-2, with Ritter and Swartz voting against it. The vote occurred at 2 hours and 59 minutes on the video – an hour and 23 minutes after the committee began its discussion.