MILLBURN, NJ – Approximately 200 township residents filled Town Hall Tuesday night to voice strong opposition to the proposed land development by 233 Canoe Brook Associates, which would create a 250-room hotel, 200 residential units and a multi-deck parking structure. The proposed mix-use structure would be built adjacent to the Mall at Short Hills.
The single largest concern voiced by township residents was not the commercial development of the land but rather the impact to the school system if families with school-aged children were to reside in the 200 residential units. Although there are no official estimates published by the township or data to support any claims of what the increase in student population would be, one resident estimated that there could be upwards of 400 children that would have to be absorbed into the Millburn school district. Secondary concerns that many vigorously voiced related to the safety of pedestrians, particularly in the Canoe Brook and Poet’s Section of town. Concerns over traffic congestion, in and around the area, as well as near commuter stations were also voiced.
Prior to addressing the public’s questions and concerns, Mayor Robert Tillotson stated that a developer had approached the township approximately 18 months ago with multiple plans to develop the area near the mall. Given the scope of the project the Township engaged planning and legal professionals to evaluate options taking into consideration physical and environmental constraints, accessibility and the “potentially legally mandated affordable housing obligations of the Township.”
Even though the Township made numerous announcements, held several public meetings, made personal visits with residents and had discussions with members of the Board of Education, the crowd seemed unaware of these communications. Some of the attendees commented that they only heard about the proposed project as late as yesterday. Though several detailed minutes of meetings, from far back as May 2014, were published on the Township’s website and several articles published in the local media, the attendees continued to fault the Committee for not properly informing the public.
Initial applause from the audience when Mayor Tillotson said, “the Township will not consider making Canoe Brook Road a through street under any circumstance” was later silenced by residents who made guarantee demands, beyond legal and contractual agreements.
There were several repetitive questions, such as the validity of communications between the Township Committee and the School Board. At one point discussions between the Committee and some residents got very heated as a few residents remarked skepticism about certain comments that were made and wanted empirical evidence from the Committee, which was not available at the time. Two residents stated they would file an OPRA request. OPRA (Open Public Records Act) is a state law enacted to give the public greater access to government records that are not subject to exceptions from disclosure.
The most asked questions were related to re-zoning and how it would benefit the town, the potentially burdensome management of a sudden influx of students in the school system, Township communications and disclosure, what the Committee is going to do.
Unfortunately for many who asked questions, the answers were not what they had anticipated. The Committee does not have jurisdiction over many of the issues that concern Millburn’s residents in regards to the proposed development because such issues are the exclusive providence of the Planning Board. It was evident that the majority of the attendees were frustrated, as they were unaware of the legal constraints and processes that govern and restrict the Committee’s ability to comment and respond to many of their queries.
Mayor Tillotson and Deputy Mayor Ted Bourke strongly urged residents to attend tomorrow evening’s Planning Board meeting where the majority, if not all, of the impact issues that concern citizens could be addressed directly by the Board and the developer. They and Christopher Falcon, the Township’s attorney, continued to reinforce the high level of diligence, detailed analysis and thoroughness of the process by which the developer and the project will be subjected to by the Planning Board and by the good citizens of Millburn. Although approval of the Master Plan amendment was approved in September 17, 2014, the process that deals with the issues of concern only begin tomorrow.
The most critical issue was the impact of the Fair Housing Act of 1985 in the Planning Boards decision to approve the re-zoning. This law and a series of New Jersey Supreme Court rulings known as the Mount Laurel doctrine was a principal driver of decisions and the development of specific courses of action taken by the Township to best serve Millburn. This law mandates that all 566 New Jersey municipalities provide a certain level of low and moderate-income housing. Administered by the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), the highly controversial doctrine requires municipalities to use their zoning powers to provide opportunities for low and moderate-income households.
The challenge for municipalities is to be in compliance with these laws whilst understanding that developers have several rights to build on private property. If builders are denied zoning privileges, they have the right to appeal under a builder’s remedy lawsuit. If a municipality loses the lawsuit, then the builder will be granted zoning privileges well beyond what was initially negotiated and could build practically anything without the consent of the municipality.
As Township Business Administrator, Tim Gordon suggests, “The Planning Board is the process.”