WESTFIELD, NJ — A majority of local homeowners are displeased with recent residential teardowns, one among many findings in a 207-page planning document the public sounded off on recently.
The Planning Board approved by a unanimous vote Thursday the extensive update to its guide to development, or master plan, and in the process got a healthy dose of public feedback on the guiding document for land use development. Key in that feedback was concern raised by builders worried that policy changes could cut into their business and adversely impact the local real estate market.
“If there isn’t that housing stock that they’re looking for in Westfield, they may go elsewhere,” said Evan Topilow, principal of Topilow Development, who was among several local builders to speak. “It is a concern not just for me but for other builders in town.”
Topilow said families new to Westfield often prefer not to move into split-level homes or smaller capes, thus creating a market demand for building teardowns. The planning update states that the town approved 61 demolitions in 2018, the highest number since 63 such teardowns were approved in 2014, and that the developments are “not well-received by the community.”
“Beyond the dislike for these over-developed lots, complaints about the demolition and construction are also prevalent,” the town’s update states. “One town in Minnesota addressed the perceived negative impacts to neighbors by raising the cost of demolition permits to fund a full-time ‘residential development coordinator’ or teardown specialist, tasked with fielding complaints regarding demolitions and new construction.”
The planning update cites figures from the regional planning group, the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, estimating that Westfield’s population will rise by 22.1% over the next two decades, bringing the existing estimated population of 30,591 people to 37,360 in 2040.
John Markos, a resident of Arlington Avenue, told the planning board that he found the population projections included in the report alarming, particularly when it comes to the potential impact that may have on the school district.
“There’s really no room for another school as far as I can see,” Markos said.
He also asked about permissible building heights.
“If you have a whole block front of buildings that are seven or eight stories, you’ve turned a suburban town into an urban city,” Markos said.
Planning Board Chairman Robert Newell replied that the board is not seeking to increase housing density or building heights outside of the town’s central business district.
“We are aware that the town of Westfield does not want to become the city of Westfield,” Newell said.
Just over 100 people attended the meeting on the update to the town’s guide for land use planning, which includes a recommendation to update the town’s regulations for solar panels, and after an amendment Thursday will also include a recommendation to consider turning the Westfield Board of Education building on Elm Street into a “community & arts center.”
The recommendation, which was not included in the first draft of the report, was only briefly discussed at the public forum. Officials noted any change would have to be with the cooperation of the school board.
The reexamination of the municipality’s master plan is something the state requires a municipality to do every 10 years. Mayor Shelley Brindle, however, promised the public would not have to wait a decade to see portions of it implemented.
“This is not going to be something that is going on the shelf,” Brindle said. “This is really going to be the blueprint of something that is going to be implemented in 2020.”
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