MONTVILLE, NJ – The Montville Township Zoning Board of Adjustments held its fourth hearing regarding an application to build 349 non age-restricted rental units on the former site of GI Auto Salvage in the Pine Brook section of town.

Avalon Bay Communities, LLC, has purchased the property at 85 Bloomfield Avenue. The site was a junkyard for 50 years and has soil contamination, according to Avalon Bay’s attorney John Inglesino. Age-restricted housing is a permitted use for the site, but the applicant is proposing non-age restricted units, thus requiring the hearings. 

Inglesino started the May 3 hearing by stating Avalon Bay had originally applied for three variances: use (ie, non-age restricted housing), height, and including more than six units per building. Inglesino stated the height and density variances were being withdrawn at this time, but may be sought at a different time. The only variance sought with the current application is the age restriction, he said.

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Professional Planner Art Bernard presented testimony that he had reviewed approximately 12 documents regarding the site, including the 2010 land use plan, the July 2014 Burgis and Associates planning analysis performed on the property for the Montville Township Committee, the Montville Township School District’s 2016 demographics study (discussed in this article), and several other land use documents. He also visited the site, he said.

He described the site as approximately 39 acres, sited below Route 46, adjacent to the Passaic River and constrained by a flood plain and wetlands. He said the applicant will include a set-aside for low- and moderate-income housing.

Bernard stated that household size has been decreasing in New Jersey for more than 40 years, and in Montville, 50.8% of households are one- and two-person households. Census figures show that “roughly two-thirds of households do not have a child under 18,” he said. He cited Jeffrey Otteau’s March 16 testimony which stated a need for rental housing for the age group of those 35 and younger and 60 and older.

Bernard said the Burgis report acknowledges that luxury rentals cater to younger people and empty nesters, and they generate fewer school children, at a rate of .084 public school children per unit. He stated the Burgis report did not find Rachel Garden Apartments to be comparable to this situation since the rents are much lower.

“We know that there’s a demand for rental housing,” Bernard said. “What we don’t know is what your ordinance would permit.” Bernard said he reviewed the ordinance, compared the zoning map, and found there’s virtually no vacant land zoned for non age-restricted apartments in Montville Township. He said the master plan does not recognize the trend toward smaller households.

Bernard talked about affordable housing and the litigation in the state of New Jersey, and said it’s possible Montville Township will receive two units of credit towards their state affordable housing obligation for every unit Avalon Bay sets aside as affordable housing. He said age-restricted housing would not result in such a credit towards affordable housing requirements. Affordable housing will be the subject of a public information session at the township committee meeting on May 23.

“The proposed housing is not that different in character from the age-restricted housing that’s permitted, because it’s going to attract few children per household,” Bernard said. “It attracts adults looking for maintenance-free housing with an active-amenity package and high levels of service.”

The township’s consulting professional planner, John Szabo said he did not think the board should act on the application because it represented a zoning change, which the board is not permitted to do. He said a proposal for the site had been presented to the township committee three years ago, Burgis Associates had written the 42-page planning report about the site, and the township committee had not acted on the proposal. He worried it would “usurp” the authority of the governing body. He said he also worried about the ramifications for the affordable housing litigation.

On cross-examination, Inglesino asked Szabo if it was not, in fact, the job of the zoning board to usurp the authority of the governing body with variances? Szabo replied that it depends on the context. Inglesino asked Szabo if the governing body did not “choose not to embark on the redevelopment process, rather than not approve the plan based on its merits.”

Szabo said he had no specific knowledge of the decision. When Inglesino said Szabo’s statement that “approval would be usurping” was unfounded, Szabo said it was not. Szabo said the last page of the Burgis report states that if the township wishes to pursue the changes, it should amend the zoning ordinance and amend the master plan, or pursue redevelopment status, and none of these options had ever been pursued.

Questions from the public centered on affordable housing clarifications and especially on the number of children the development would generate. Inglesino stated the number of school children generated by an application is not the basis to deny an application under New Jersey state law.

The next hearing on this application will be July 5.