Cranford Township Committee Centers on School Concerns during Hartz Mountain Presentation

The Cranford Board of Education read a resolution to the township committee that argues against the proposed rezoning and development of 750 Walnut Avenue. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna
The Cranford Township Committee asked questions and fielded resident concerns and questions for nearly five hours. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna
Jay Rhatican, Director of Land Use and Development for Hartz Mountain Industries, led the presentation along with a handful of representatives. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna
Concerned citizens filled the room and spilled into the hallway. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna

CRANFORD, NJ – Concerns about Cranford’s schools loomed on the minds of residents and the Cranford Township Committee on Tuesday evening as they listened to a presentation by Hartz Mountain Industries. The presentation was similar to the one given by Hartz Mountain Industries on Thursday night.

The benches of the room were filled and the walls were lined with concerned residents who spilled out into the hallways. Among the audience were Police Chief James Wozniak, Fire Chief Daniel Czeh, the Cranford Board of Education and Cranford’s Chief Financial Officer, Lavona Patterson. Many remained during the meeting, which lasted nearly five hours, with approximately two of those hours consisting of resident questions that focused on the schools.

According to Keenan Hughes a professional planner, the apartment complex would only introduce 122 students by the time the second phase of the project was complete. He based these numbers off reports of students from other complexes within the school district, which reported one student from Cranford Crossing, one student from Riverfront and 10 students from Woodmont.

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However, a new report completed at approximately 5 p.m. on Tuesday showed different numbers: eight students from Cranford Crossing, seven students from Riverfront and 35 students from Woodmont. This data was provided by Cranford Board of Education President Kurt Petschow and was collected using registrations on PowerSchool.

“I want to make it clear that Mr. Rhatican [Jay Rhatican, Director of Land Use and Development for Hartz Mountain Industries] has been a gentleman,” Petschow said. “The numbers we gave him were wrong and that’s not his fault.”

Hughes said that the estimated number of students would benefit the school system, stating that the schools will receive a $1.09 million net annual fiscal benefit at the end of phase one and a $1.91 million net annual fiscal benefit by the end of phase two. However, these amounts were determined before the new report from the Board of Education were completed.

“What concerns me is that we’re looking simply at a number,” Commissioner Mary O’Connor said. “This is going to be in a residential area in a very desirable school system where people want their children to go to school. It’s going to be concentrated in either Walnut, Livingston or Hillside. You have numbers, but if the school cannot accommodate those numbers, then doesn’t the cost to the town actually become excessive to the revenue? We don’t know where those children are going to be and if those specific schools can accommodate them.”

Hughes said that the revenue brought in could theoretically be used to make improvements throughout the district. “At this stage, we have not done an analysis of the capacity within the school district,” Hughes said. “Moving forward, additional dialogue with the school district would be needed to understand some of the demographic trends. The bottom line at this point is that we’ve addressed the per pupil cost and then there’s this net benefit, which seems to be something that could be used annually for improvements in the district, including different factors like expansion.”

Following the presentation, Petschow read a resolution created by the Board of Education, stating that the board is against the proposed apartments.

“The devil is in the details,” Petschow said. “The details that nobody can speak to is that they’re putting a price tag on the individual student. We don’t know what needs each individual student has. We don’t know the price tag of each individual student and their needs. It could be vocational, it could be special education. Those are the details that we don’t know that really have to be considered when moving forward with a project of this size. The numbers are not a viable number for us to handle.”

Multiple residents, along with O’Connor, asked if Hartz Mountain Industries had looked into senior housing, which would not impact the schools.

“We have studied it,” Rhatican said. “We anticipate that the tenant mix we get would include a fair amount of retirees or active adults in the 55 or older age range. We see that while some people in that age range would like to live in age-restricted communities, the trends show that more people want to live in a mixed-age community, and that’s what we’re proposing.”

Others asked about single family homes or new office space, as the property is currently commercial, but Rhatican said those ventures seem risky.

“We have looked at that, and we don’t think it’s the best use of the property and that the suburban office market isn’t strong enough to support that market,” Rhatican said of office space.

Mayor Thomas Hannen Jr. asked about warehouse use on the property.

“Are you aware of the truck route that extends down Raritan Road to Stiles Street to Route 1 to the Turnpike?” Hannen asked. “Most of the trucks use Raritan Road as a truck route. In terms of best use for viability, have you factored in that Raritan Road is a truck route?”

Hughes said he is not aware of the truck route, but that the spot is not considered to be a good access point to the turnpike and is not a viable warehouse space.

Commissioner Ann Dooley was concerned with the population growth to the town, which is estimated at approximately 8 percent.

“We’re a suburban community,” Dooley said. “We would grow by 8 percent in a very small part of town. My question is, what similar projects have you actually built and operated that provide that kind of extraordinary density in a suburban community?”

Rhatican responded that Hartz Mountain Industries has not built a project with this density in a suburban area before. Rhatican referenced previous projects built by Hartz Mountain Industries including The Estuary in Weehawken, Osprey Cove in Seacaucus and 3 Journal Square in Jersey City.

Hartz Mountain Industries also called upon appraiser Jon Brody, who was not at the meeting on Thursday. However, Brody did not have results for the public.

“We are at the very infancy of working on statistical data relevant to this development,” Brody said. “I don’t have the results.”

Residents were angry with the Hartz Mountain representatives for providing incomplete answers, as one resident said, after stating they were collaborative and open to dialogue.

“You claimed earlier that the whole point of seeking re-development is creating a dialogue,” one resident said to Rhatican. “However, every other solution presented, we’re constantly being told, ‘Well, that’s not within our logic.’ I see nothing but 905 units and you’re not willing to consider anything else.”

Following the resident’s questions, which implored the committee to take action against the proposed apartments, Hannen said the committee will deliberate before making a statement.

“The township committee will consider Hartz Mountain’s requests,” Hannen said. “We have to do this through a process. The next time we meet isn’t until August, so we will be consulting with professionals, gathering data on our own and consulting with Hartz Mountain and going from there. We need to take into consideration what they presented to us at this point so that we can either enter into a dialogue or not enter into a dialogue. We heard some interesting comments this evening and it’s worth exploring what those comments are and coming up with further questions that we can propose to Hartz.”

The Cranford Township Committee will make a decision regarding the re-development of 750 Walnut Avenue, but the decision to re-zone and develop the property must be approved by the Planning Board as well. Rhatican described it as a “tennis match” between the Cranford Township Committee and the Planning Board.

The next Cranford Township Committee official meeting is August 15 at 8 p.m. Hartz Mountain Industries’ application for the Planning Board has been scheduled for September 20.

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