CRANFORD - 14 meetings and over a year worth of time. Verdict? A unanimous No.
The Cranford Planning Board was tasked with deliberating whether or not the C-3 property located at 750 Walnut Avenue falls into the definition of inutility as Hartz Mountain claims and if the rezoning would substantially and meaningfully benefit the Township and further the purposes of the municipal land use law.
Dr. Christopher Chapman spoke first on behalf of the Cranford Planning Board and laid out his reasoning for why 750 Walnut Avenue does not fall into inutility. He said the definition of inutility is a property that in unusable for any permitted use currently identified for use in the C-3 zone and that the property cannot be reasonably adapted to a conforming use, and as a result, the property has no practical use.
During his deliberation, Dr. Chapman explained that failure to rent out the property was essentially self-imposed. He said that Hartz Mountain simply made the choice to not make necessary updates to the property and therefore is not entitled to rezoning at the expense of the community. Board member Bobbi Anderson pointed out that Hartz Mountain acquired the property in 1988 and have made little to no improvements to the property since.
Chapman’s colleagues backed up his claims and said it appeared that Hartz Mountain simply "went through the motions" attempting to market the property knowing that an application to rezone to residential had been filed. Members of the Board believed that due to the pending application, it left a "black cloud" over the property and led to it not being leased out, not that the property was inutility.
It was mentioned Hartz Moutain was in negotiations with Summit Medical Group to lease out a substantial piece of the property in May of 2018, but after negotiations fell apart, Hartz Mountain failed to engage other health companies' interest. Also, that PSE&G reached out to Hartz Mountain to purchase 8-10 acres of the 30-acre property for a new substation. A substation would be permitted in the C-3 zone, and further proves why the property is not inutility.
When deliberating if the application would substantially and meaningfully benefit the Township and further the purposes of the municipal land use law, the Board focused on the impact the schools would suffer, fiscal impact, and the Cranford Master Plan.
On the impact of schools, the Board relied heavily on Dr. Ross Haber and Mr. Robert Carfagno’s testimonies. Haber was the demographer hired by the Cranford Board of Education who testified that the project would add roughly 353 school-aged children, compared to the 110-135 Hartz Mountain’s Planner suggested. The Board sided with Haber’s testimony because of his track record of being within a 3% margin of error.
Carfagno, the BOE Administrator, testified that Cranford schools are all at capacity and that adding even the 110 suggested by Hartz Mountain would be devastating and 353 would be catastrophic. The Board sided with Carfagno’s testimony because he is in the schools every day and sees the current situation. It was noted that the Hartz Mountain Planner never visited any of the Cranford schools.
In regards to the Master Plan, the focus was on the density of the project and location. The application calls for a density of 30 units per acre but the location according to the Master Plan suggests roughly 10 units per acre. The Board explained that they are not against high-density projects, but they should be situated in the downtown area near mass transit as Woodmont Station, Riverfront, and Cranford Crossings are.
All 10 Board members present voted a unanimous no on both the issues of if the property is inutility and if rezoning would substantially and meaningfully benefit the Township and further the purposes of the municipal land use law.
The Board will now offer a report to the Township Committee in the form of a resolution to be considered and adopted at the next Planning Board meeting. The Township Committee would then consider the recommendation of the Planning Board.