EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Despite the high engagement of residents of East Brunswick and Spotswood, despite a proposal that was viewed negatively by everyone except those who proposed it, despite the reluctance of the East Brunswick Planning Board, the application by HD Summerhill LLC to construct a multi-use development at the intersection of Old Stage Road and Summerhill Road passed tonight by a slim majority. At the conclusion of tonight's Planning Board meeting at Memorial Elementary School, an unwanted amalgam of apartments and commercial properties came to rest at the busy intersection near a park and an old residential neighborhood at the southern border of the township. Over the course of several very long meetings, most lasting until nearly midnight, the Planning Board got as much as they could from the developer. Even those who voted in favor of the development acknowledged that while something was quite legal, it could still be very wrong.
Acording to attorney Larry Sachs, who represents East Brunswick, the situation involving this particular development was unique. East Brunswick, said Sachs, had been in the forefront of compliance with the Council on Affordable Housing. In 2015, Governor Chris Christie disbanded the COAH, leading to a disorganized variety of efforts to comply with the former mandates. The case for COAH went to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which then decided that they would determine the number of COAH housing units each municipality had to provide. One judge per county would make that decision.
In 2016, the site at the corner of Summerhill and Old Stage was selected and approved by the court as a location to provide this housing. In 2017, under the mayoralty of Brad Cohen and a mostly-new council, an effort was mde to have the zoning changed so as to stop development in this area. Legal actions ensued. In 2018, the developer said that East Brunswick was in violation. They added that Mayor Cohen was no longer allowed to participate in the hearings on the development, and a Special Master was appointed to make sure that East Brunswick followed the rules regarding development at this location.
A Special Master is generally a subordinate official appointed by a judge to make sure that judicial orders are actually followed. In effect, the Planning Board was being watched to make sure that they followed the law. Therefore, unless the applicant Summerhill LLC broke the law or was asking for things wildly outside of what is permitted, the EB Planning Board had to comply with the requests by the developer. Said Shawn Taylor, Chairman of the Planning Board, "New Jersey is a pretty pro-developer state."
The location was an underutilized office building with a large parking lot, occupying almost ten acres near Frost Woods. The initial proposal was for 120 apartments and two businesses; by the end, the apartments were reduced to 96, still maintaining the original number of COAH apartments - 24. The main concern was - and is - traffic on the two heavily-used roads bordering and intersecting with Spotswood. Tonight, residents of both towns were told -again - that Summerhill Road is controlled by Middlesex County, which approved the plan by HD Summerhill LLC.
Complaints about traffic were heard at the meeting, with attorney for the developer David Himelman, who is a 30-year resident of East Brunswick, restating that the traffic score of Summerhill Road was a "D" and might become a "C" after the plan is completed, and that Old Stage Road is a "D" and would remain so. East Brunswick's own traffic analysis proved pretty much the same thing.
Conversation ensued about bicycle racks, roofs, parking spaces, and landscaping with the developer acquiescing to the minor demands of the township at each turn. Sachs later reminded those in attendance that most of the requests were de miniumus (too trivial or minor to merit consideration, especially in law.) Traffic was the big issue, and, since Summerhill Road is a Middlesex County Road and the County had given approval to the new traffic pattern (as had the East Brunswick Police Department,) there was little the Planning Board could do to stop the project from moving forward, especially since they were being watched by a judge who had someone in the room making sure the rules were followed.
During the public portion of the meeting, tempers were high, with many residents of East Brunswick and Spotswood speaking out against the project. Some verbally attacked the developers and their attorney. East Brunswick's Sandra Lanman said that the development would "alter the character of that part of town."
A vote was taken, and individual members of the board said their piece. The only elected offical on the Board, Councilman Michael Spadafino voted against the move, saying that the developer should comply without making changes to East Brunswick guidelines. Township Administrator Joe Criscuolo asserted that the Town Council currently in office did not vote for the change in zoning, noting that the current Council had applied for a change in zoning and were denied. In a nod to theose who had attended and spoken ot at the half-dozen meetings on the proposal, Criscuolo said, "I have heard you loud and clear and am voting 'no.'"
Nonetheless, the majority of the Board voted yes, however reluctantly, on the proposal, as it was in compliance with the law and tuning down the application could have led to more trouble for East Brunswick. Board Chair Shawn Taylor said, "I feel boxed in. Shame on the court for putting us in this position. We will spend a long time weighing the reprecussions of our decisions."