CLARK, NJ – The Clark Planning Board voted to recommend condemnation of the former A&P site during their August 2 meeting. Their recommendation will be reviewed by the town council at their meeting on Sept. 16.

Township Planner Kevin O’Brien presented a study of the area, ultimately concluding that both the former A&P site and the vacant property next to the Rice Bowl should be designated “Area[s] in Need of Redevelopment.” O’Brien made his determination after considering eight statutory criteria, including the condition of the property, how long the property has been vacant, and what the property would be used for if redeveloped.

After hearing the results of O’Brien’s study, the Board was tasked with determining whether the property would be designated a “Condemnation Area in Need of Redevelopment” or a “Non-Condemnation Area in Need of Redevelopment.” In 2013, Governor Chris Christie signed Bill A3615, which distinguishes between the two categories. The bill states that a condemnation designation allows municipalities to use “the power of eminent domain” in their attempts to redevelop a property, whereas a non-condemnation designation “shall not authorize the municipality to exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire any property in the delineated area.”

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Robert Davidson, who has owned the former A&P site since 1974 and operated the Foodtown store on the property until 1999, voiced his concerns to the Board during the meeting along with his attorney, Kevin Morrow. Both men indicated that, though they are not objecting to a designation of redevelopment, they are objecting to designating the property as a “Condemnation Area in Need of Redevelopment.” They asserted that a condemnation designation, if recommended by the Board, could have implications on the sale of the property to Garden Homes, which plans to purchase and develop the property. According to Morrow, the contract has been executed and “the purchaser [Garden Homes] is in the process of due diligence,” which began on June 11 and will end approximately 90 days later.

 “There’s really no need at this point for a condemnation redevelopment area designation,” said Morrow. “[We’ve] executed a contract for sale of the property to a developer who […] wants to develop the property in conformity with the Township’s current zoning for the property, including the new affordable housing overlay.”

“We’re not opposed to a redevelopment zone, in fact we think that’s a great idea. We are opposed to a condemnation redevelopment zone,” Davidson added. “This Board could just as easily do a non-condemnation redevelopment zone and help us, the town, and the developer move the project forward.”

Mayor Sal Bonaccorso disputed these objections, saying that Garden Homes would have no objections to either a condemnation or non-condemnation designation. “I spoke to the purchaser. We told him what we’re looking to do going forward [and] he had no problems with it whatsoever,” said Bonaccorso.

Davidson also alluded to past contract negotiations that he believes were stalled by the Township’s objections. According to Davidson, “many attempts were made to lease this property over the last decade,” and various development ideas including multiple dollar stores, a gym, and a used clothing store were considered. Davidson added that he and his family also considered developing the property themselves after years of unsuccessful negotiations with multiple buyers.

Bonaccorso acknowledged that some of these ideas, as well as plans for a dialysis center, were brought to the Township, but that “for some reason, they all fell apart.” He added that the plans put forth by Davidson’s family to redevelop the property themselves called for 85 apartments, which the Township deemed too high a number.

Though Davidson claimed to have only known of the Township’s efforts to possibly condemn the property about two weeks prior to the Board meeting, Clark Business Administrator John Laezza asserted that the Township reached out to Davidson multiple times beginning in February 2018, a month before the Board began the process of reviewing the property.

Ultimately, Mayor Bonaccorso believes that he and the Township have waited long enough for the property to be redeveloped. “The property is deplorable. It has looked deplorable,” said Bonaccorso. “My feelings are hurt. Our community has been given a black eye by this site.”

He added that he is reluctant to stop the condemnation process despite a contract having been executed. “What happens if this contract falls apart?” Bonaccorso asked. “My vote is to go forward. If the property is sold, we’ll be washing our hands of each other very shortly, and it won’t be a problem. If for some reason [the contract with Garden Homes] dies, I’m not restarting this process again. We have waited a long, long time.”

Planning Board Attorney Kelly Carey explained to the Board that they would only be making a preliminary recommendation as to whether the property should be designated as a condemnation area or non-condemnation area, based on the findings of O’Brien’s study. The same criteria outlined by O’Brien are used to determine either designation, and only one of the eight criteria needs to be met for either determination to be made.

As Carey explained, the Town Council will make their final determination based on the Board’s recommendation, and the subsequent process of moving forward with the determination can be stopped at any time the Township deems appropriate.

Morrow reminded the Planning Board that “what [the Board does] tonight is very weighty and important,” but Bonaccorso assured everyone that the Township would be willing to stop the process if the contract with Garden Homes moves forward as planned.

“When that property is under a secure blanket and we know it’s definitely gonna change hands and move over, we will stop the process. If there’s a fumble, we will pick the ball up and run to that end zone,” Bonaccorso said.

Ultimately, the Board voted to recommend that the property be designated a “Condemnation Area in Need of Redevelopment,” but Mayor Bonaccorso agreed to delay bringing this recommendation before the Council until September 16, in order to allow Garden Homes to complete their approximately 90-day due diligence process.

Robert Davidson declined to issue any further comment on this matter when asked by TAPinto Clark. Owners and/or representatives for either Garden Homes or the vacant property next to the Rice Bowl were not present at the Planning Board meeting.