SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Scotch Plains Mayor Al Smith walked a crowded audience through a presentation that outlined his vision of the future of the township at a meeting of the Scotch Plains Redevelopment Committee on Wednesday, July 19, at SPFHS.
Mayor Smith began the presentation by explaining the township's COAH (affordable housing) obligations. From 1999 to 2015 COAH did not provide towns with guidelines on the number of affordable housing units they should add. In 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered that towns must go to the courts to settle their fair share requirements including the gap between 1999 and 2015. Courts have ruled that 15 to 20 percent of housing in each town in New Jersey must be designated as affordable.
"The courts don't care about our infrastructure, fire department capabilities or schools," Mayor Smith said. "I have no idea how (hundreds of new COAH units) will impact our school system. Some believe little impact to none; I don't believe it."
Mayor Smith explained that courts are monitoring Scotch Plains and all other towns in the state to ensure they meet their COAH obligations. While the township doesn't have a final figure, the total number of units Scotch Plains needs to build will be somewhere around 450. They should be constructed in the next 8 to 10 years.
"At a 15% rate for new construction projects, we would see around 3,000 new housing units built in Scotch Plains to meet our COAH requirements. That would be about 6,000 more people," Mayor Smith explained, adding that the town does indeed need to add some affordable housing.
The mayor said the people living in the units would include a mix of "seniors who are looking to downsize and live downtown; low and moderate income families; Millennials just starting out on their own; and adults with special needs." He added that in Cranford, housing units that many people thought would be filled by commuters have been taken by empty nesters.
Smith introduced the audience to Victor Bonegra of Harbor Associates, who explained that Scotch Plains has to take a proactive look at its affordable housing obligations and address the issue first. He also said the township's downtown lacked uniformity with its mix of architectural styles, some dating back to the American Revolution.
"We'd like to see some uniformity, such as the awnings at Darby Road," said Bonegra, adding that Scotch Plains has ample property on which to build.
Traffic problems were also addressed. Mayor Smith said that Union County considers Park Avenue -- an artery with just one lane each way -- to be a "primary road" in the heart of downtown on which 3,500 trucks roll each day. Meanwhile, Terrill Road is considered a secondary road. Approximately 2,500 trucks rumble along Terrill Road daily.
Citizens had the opportunity to come to the microphone towards the end of the meeting. They raised issues with the concept of eminent domain ("I don't like the government telling us what to do."), incorporations of the arts (perhaps a theater or a gallery venue) and the benefits of "inclusive architecture" that maintains the character of the township's history.
For the time being, the section of Scotch Plains for which eminent domain would be applied is the Tier 1 section bordered in green on the map displayed at the meeting, which includes Park Ave. and parts of Second Street.
Former Councilwoman Colleen Gialanella approached the mic and stated: "So many neighboring communities have made strides in their downtown areas. It's illogical (given Scotch Plains' demographics) that we have not," Gialanella said. "Our plan has to look at how the needs of commuters are changing. More people are working from home. They want to purchase goods and get services downtown. These are things that we have to get into the plan for the future."