SPARTA, NJ – The township council tabled a resolution to change some of the zoning in the center of town, potentially altering the complexion of Sparta.  The ordinance, recommended by the Planning Board, allows for three- and four-story apartment buildings to be constructed on minimum of two acre lots.

The ordinance also allows for two levels of parking, one underground and one basement level with a maximum height of 62 feet for a four-story building.

Councilwoman Molly Whilesmith asked to have the ordinance tabled as questions were raised.  At first Deputy Mayor Christine Quinn and Mayor Jerry Murphy and Councilman Dave Smith said they did not see the need to table. 

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“I think you would rather have this pass in two weeks, when all questions are answered and the language is perfect,” Whilesmith said on the second attempt to table.

Quinn and Murphy said they did not want to table because this ordinance was the result of two years’ work and came “highly recommended” by the planning board.

As questions continued to be raised about the calculation of housing units, Smith agreed with Whilesmith and Councilman Dan Chiariello and it was tabled.

As presented, each acre of land could have a maximum of 30 units for a four-story building and 22 units for a three story.  As a minimum of two acres are required, the number of units could actually be 60 units for a four-story building and 44 units for three stories.

If the lot was larger, however, the number of units could increase; 90 units for a four-story building on three acres, 120 units on four acres and so on.

The confusion with this language is part of the reason the ordinance was tabled. Neither Murphy, Quinn nor Township Manager Bill Close could not clarify the math.

Incentives

The setbacks established in the ordinance require only 10 feet from the side of the building to the property line, 20 feet from the back of the building to the property line.  For a four-story building the front of the building must be 50 feet from the curb and 25 feet for a three-story building.

Murphy explained the incentives for a four-story building included increased impervious coverage allowance up to 80% for a four-story building and 70% for a three-story building. 

Impervious coverage is a surface that does not allow for water to flow through to be absorbed into the ground, the building, paved parking lot, sidewalks for example.

The incentive of increased impervious coverage, underground parking and building height up to 62 feet is also extended to the Town Center Professional Business Zone or TCPB Zone located on Route 517 adjacent to the Mohawk House.  That zone allows for a maximum of 100 units including 25 affordable housing units. 

The incentives are not limited to residential buildings but to mixed use buildings with commercial space and offices along with apartments.

Reexamination Report- December 9, 2019

The Planning Board’s recommended ordinance was based on a study they commissioned, according to Murphy and Quinn.

The planning board had a Reexamination Report created by Harbor Consultants, on which the ordinance was based, according to Quinn.  There are several significant places where the proposed ordinance ignores statements and recommendations in Reexamination Report.

Quinn said it is the belief of the planning board that Sparta needs additional affordable housing.  This goes beyond the court required low income housing.  She said the needs of young people and senior citizens will be addressed by these ordinance changes.

The Reexamination Report identifies five “major problems, goals and objectives” including “concerns with residential densities in the environs and around lake communities specifically relating to water quality” as the number one issue.

When asked how a four-story apartment building addresses this identified problem, Quinn said the idea is to keep high density housing from around the lakes.  She agreed, however, that residential development around lakes is limited by current zoning rules regarding minimum lot sizes and further restricted by the Highlands Act.

Murphy was not pleased to be discussing the report.  “We are here to discuss the ordinance,” he said several times.  Quinn handled most of the questions.

He was also not pleased with having to answer so many questions.

“Why are you so interested in this,” Murphy asked TAPinto Sparta. 

According to Close, Whilesmith and Quinn, there are approximately 10 parcels of land that would qualify to have three- and four-story apartment buildings. Request for clarification from the township manager and planning board attorney had not been provided as of publication.

Quinn said a couple of those parcels are “already occupied” and unlikely to have the apartment buildings.  Though Quinn and Murphy conceded a builder could buy a property with smaller buildings and knock them down to build multi story apartment building.

Intent

As Murphy continued to bristle at the discussion and Quinn said, “it was not the intent of the planning board,” to have as many as 10 multi story apartment buildings, but, agreed that according to the ordinance it was possible.

Quinn said it is the belief of the planning board that Sparta needs additional affordable housing.  This goes beyond the court required low income housing.  She said young people and senior citizens needs will be addressed by these ordinance changes.

She also said the planning board has been trying to create a walking environment in the town center but “they need somewhere to walk to and from.” 

Reexamination Report Recommendations

The Reexamination Report has “specific changes recommended” including “prior recommendations that remain valid and should continue.” Not only do the proposed zoning changes not follow the recommendations, in some instances the ordinance contradicts or ignores the recommendations.

The Reexamination Report recommends the township continues to use available tools to “…further manage development to protect the rural character of Sparta.”  Murphy could not answer the question of how the multi-story apartment building approach to housing achieves this goal.

The Reexamination Report recommends the planning board should “encourage discussions with the board of education concerning the long-range facility needs of the district,” but Quinn and Murphy said that had not been done with regard to this ordinance.

The Reexamination Report recommends the planning board should examine the relationship between land use and traffic congestion, specifically in the Town Center and Route 15 corridor and develop strategies to reduce negative impacts.

Councilman Dan Chiariello said he would like to see a traffic study done to understand the impact of having high density buildings in the middle of town.  Murphy said typically builders are asked to do the traffic impact study when they are seeking approval for their project.  Chiariello said he would rather see it done before the ordinance is passed.

Also, in response to Chiariello’s concerns, Murphy said the roads were not township roads. Close said one road is a county road and another is a state road. Chiariello said he did not think that mattered with regard to this discussion.

The increased or “incentive” impervious coverage would mean there is increased rainwater runoff.  Chiariello, also a member of the Environmental Committee, said with the building taking up so much of the property there is no room for a detention basin and the water would then end up in the Wallkill River.

Chiariello said his experience is that impervious coverage is increased when the builder presents the project plans.  He said discussion with the Planning Board Attorney Tom Collins confirmed his concerns about storm water runoff.

“The current stormwater runoff empties into the Wallkill River,” Chiariello said.  “This plan will put more stress on the infrastructure” with increased runoff going into the Wallkill River.

The proposed ordinance does not appear solve the first “major problem” as identified in the Reexamination Report, but instead potentially makes it worse.

Details to Follow

TAPinto Sparta asked if the township currently had a fire truck that could service a building 62 feet high.  There was no response from Close’s office as of publication.

The census data in the report is estimated from 2010 to 2017. 

“It will be interesting to see what the 2020 census shows,” Quinn said.

Other data includes Sparta Township’s Certificates of Occupancy but only through 2014. Chiariello asked about the number of retail vacancies in the center of Sparta. Quinn said she did not know.

Chiariello asked why a housing need would be addressed by incentives for commercial and professional buildings.  There was no response to his question. He also said he would like to see the ordinance changed to have a smaller number of lots qualify for the high density housing.

The township manager had not yet provided a response to the question of whether a builder has already approached the township with plans for a project that would only be approved if the proposed ordinance is adopted. 

The Planning Board meeting is Wednesday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m.

The Township Council meeting is Tuesday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m.