CRANFORD, NJ – Hartz Mountain Industries is accusing the Township of Cranford of attempting to stall its application for redevelopment of 750 Walnut Avenue.
Last month, the township filed a motion asking the state court to find that Cranford is still in compliance with its affordable housing obligations. Included in that application is a list of potential development sites for affordable housing, which includes 750 Walnut Avenue.
“I think a lot of people aren’t aware that the town’s own motion papers acknowledge that our site is suitable for multi-family development,” Jay Rhatican, director of Land Use and Development for Hartz Mountain Industries, said.
In its motion, the township finds 750 Walnut Avenue suitable for development at 10 units per acre. Hartz Mountain applied to build 30 units per acre.
“Seemingly, the town is trying to set the potential development at our site for multi-family use and did it without letting anyone know,” Rhatican said. “They didn’t announce it [the motion] to the community until the August 15 township committee meeting and didn’t say anything to us. Because that motion implicates our property, we felt we had no need but to be involved. We’d like to be at the table. It’s certainly encouraging to see the town take that position in court papers to start.”
According to township attorney Ryan J. Cooper, the inclusion of 750 Walnut Avenue simply means the site can be used for affordable housing, not that it must be. Once the number for affordable housing is set by the state, the township must meet that number somehow.
“The township recognizes its affordable housing obligations under the law,” the township committee wrote in a public statement. “But that legal obligation also gives the township the right to choose how it complies. The township does not believe that it needs residential development on the 750 Walnut site to meet its affordable housing obligation.”
Following the township’s motion, Hartz Mountain filed a motion to intervene. According to Rhatican, Hartz wants to ensure that their request is considered by the state when making a ruling for Cranford’s affordable housing.
“We’d like a seat at the table,” he said.
The Cranford Township Committee heard Hartz’s presentation at its July 18 meeting. The committee has not yet announced a decision regarding the site’s redevelopment, which Rhatican feels is intentional.
“We attended the August 15 meeting at which a public statement was read,” Rhatican said. “At that time, the public was told that the township committee would reach out to us to ask for additional information. We have not heard a word from anyone. In the meantime, the township has asked to adjourn the motion it filed out to September 19. The town’s strategy clearly is to try to prolong our request for redevelopment until they can work out a settlement or reach a different court order with respect to its affordable housing.”
According to Cooper, that belief is false.
“It is simply untrue that the township has caused any delay,” Cooper said. “Hartz has repeatedly requested in writing that the planning board adjourn Hartz's application. Since May 30, when Hartz first made the request to also pursue a redevelopment designation, the township has moved with all deliberate speed to allow Hartz to present the relevant information. The Township Committee will make a decision on Hartz’s request only after responsibly considering all of the information.”
Rhatican believes the township is making the process more complicated than necessary.
“Hartz is disappointed that the town has used the litigation process to influence the development of our site rather than just sitting down and having a dialogue about what it feels is appropriate for the site,” Rhatican said. “We think it’ll be a much smarter strategy to just talk to us rather than go the litigation route.”
According to Rhatican, the amount of resistance from Cranford residents is unprecedented compared to other projects.
“There’s more pushback here than any other project I’m aware of,” he said.
The pushback is obvious throughout Cranford and neighboring towns, with “Say no to 750 Walnut” signs standing proudly in front of homes and businesses. Additionally, the Cranford Board of Education recently passed a resolution against the redevelopment.
According to the resolution, the board believes 905 apartment units on Walnut Avenue would “adversely impact the school district and create a hardship in which the district is not equipped to support.”
Rhatican said that Hartz is still trying to determine the student demographics and school capacities for the district.
“The board gave us outdated numbers at first,” Rhatican said. “We tried to get the right one, and after several phone calls and emails, we had to file an Open Public Records Act [OPRA] request. They’re still trying to get the capacity numbers together.”
Rhatican said it is difficult to say what would happen if the impact on the school system appeared substantial, but that Hartz has worked with school districts in the past.
“We’re willing to work with the town and the board of education to mitigate any impact on the schools,” Rhatican said. “They’d have to ask us to do something, whether its make a separate contribution to the school board or provide special equipment. Those are requests that we’ve seen in other municipalities. But that would have to evolve from the Board of Education.”
Hartz’s previous multi-family projects were built in Secaucus, Jersey City and Weehawken.
“We acknowledge that this is a suburban area,” Rhatican said. “We understand that there are different concerns. Weehawken has a public school system just like Cranford and we’ve always been able to work with the town to figure out how to mitigate the impact.”
Rhatican also thinks residents have false beliefs about the tenants that the project would bring in.
“We’ve heard members of the public raise an apparent concern about renters as opposed to homeowners,” he said. “I think those concerns are based on misconceptions about renters. Renters are often involved in their communities. We invited the township committee to speak with mayors in other communities where we’ve built projects to learn about the communities. Elected officials have not done that.”
According to Rhatican, Hartz doesn’t expect to change Cranford’s character. He does not believe Cranford will become another Hoboken or Jersey City.
“We own one piece of property,” Rhatican said. “We’re not trying to shape the entire community. While I understand the concern, I don’t think that’s a real concern. The community is not going to change. The overall atmosphere and environment of Cranford is not going to change.”
The Township of Cranford’s motion is scheduled to be heard on September 19, 2017. To read the motion, click here.