Westfield Planning Board Accepts Affordable Housing Obligations, Hears Testimony for Subdivision of 667 Fourth Avenue

The Westfield Planning Board accepted the affordable housing ordinances, which will be open to a public hearing at the next town council meeting. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna
The Westfield Planning Board accepted the affordable housing ordinances, which will be open to a public hearing at the next town council meeting. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna

WESTFIELD, NJ – The Westfield Planning Board voted to accept the Housing Element and Fair Share Plan and Amendment to the 2009 Land Use Element in the early portion of an almost six-hour meeting on Monday.

The plan, which includes nine new ordinances, was the result of a settlement that the town reached with the Fair Share Housing Center in November.

Seven of the ordinances created “overlay” zones that allow property owners to develop multi-family housing with affordable units. According to the town’s FAQ, the overlay zones are located along the North and South Avenue corridors east of Central Avenue, adjacent to the South Avenue traffic circle, on Central Avenue and on Ross Place. Realistically, the overlay zones can produce about 100 affordable housing units, according to the FAQ.

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The other two ordinances changed the density requirements in two other zones, allowing a maximum density of 25 dwelling units per acre. Those zones are North Avenue adjacent to the Garwood border and the Williams Nursery site, according to town planner Donald Sammet.

The ordinances were presented by planner John Szabo, who said the plan will move the town forward in a way that satisfies its affordable housing obligation while reaping the benefits of redevelopment. It also allows the town to avoid builder’s remedy lawsuits, in which developers can sue municipalities for the right to build in exchange for making a portion of the development affordable housing.

“I think you all did an excellent job in terms of getting a reasonable agreement,” Mayor Shelley Brindle said to Szabo. “If you look at it with fresh eyes, seeing where you designated potential redevelopment sites, I think you’re absolutely right. It could be an improvement to most of those sites. Just to reiterate, when you talked about the clause in the contract where a developer cannot use an unmet need as an excuse to get zoning exceptions, I think that’s incredibly critical. It keeps the power with planning.”

The plan will go to a public hearing at the next town council meeting on March 13.

Next, the board revisited an application for an extension to Alfa Realty Management at 414 Central Avenue. The application was first heard in January, when the board recommended that the application be sent to the architectural review board.

Since that meeting, the applicant agreed to increase the rear yard setback from 10 feet to 17 feet and change the design to break up the façade facing Central Avenue. Ultimately, following several resident complaints regarding the rear yard setback and parking, the board decided the changes were not significant enough and denied the application.

“I feel like we’ve been thrown a bone with the extra seven feet,” vice chairman Frank Smith said. “It’s still a huge encroachment into the backyards. I don’t see how this promotes a desirable visual environment, promotes the small-town atmosphere of the business district, and I don’t see how we can grant this variance without substantial detriment to the public good. The benefits do not outweigh the detriments.”

Finally, the board heard testimony and ultimately carried an application for 667 Fourth Avenue, a historic site built in the 1760’s. The applicant proposed to subdivide the lot and construct an additional single family home on the subdivision.

The home played a significant role in Westfield history, according to the historic preservation commission, who voted to deny the subdivision in January. Originally a farmhouse, it was raided by the British in 1783, served as a schoolhouse in the 1870’s and housed Leonard Cohen, Westfield’s Postmaster, in the early 1900’s.

“Now is the time to complete the restoration process,” homeowner Andrew Stillufsen said, citing the restoration of the home that began in the 1970’s. “It’s our intent to take the proceeds of the subdivision and invest it into this house.”

The estimated cost of the repair is $400,000, according to Stillufsen. Without the subdivision, he and his wife will most likely move in a few years, he said.

Board member Alan Tremblak questioned how the board can ensure that the proceeds of the subdivision will go to renovations.

“I suggest that that be done through a developer’s agreement,” attorney Stephen Hehl said.

Kelly Kessler, president of the historic preservation commission, said she was encouraged by the discussion in the meeting, at which the board said the HPC will have final approval on the exterior and driveways of the new home. She also questioned the inclusion of a retaining wall, saying it would not be visually compatible.

“What gets built there will have a big impact on how this historic site is affected,” Kessler said. “Once you subdivide it, you’re destroying part of the historic site. It’s critically important, what controls are put over what gets put there.”

Residents voiced overwhelmingly positive opinions toward the subdivision, mentioning the dedication that’s been put into the application by agreeing to defer to the HPC and funnel the proceeds into the renovation of the home.

“It’s never going to be the 55-acre farm that it used to be,” resident Debby Burslem said. “This subdivision just seems to make sense.”

Following resident comments, the board agreed to carry the application to the next meeting with a revised site plan that considers the recommendations of the board, namely the elimination of the retaining wall if possible, a commitment by the owner and the developer to restoration of the original home and a certificate of approval from the HPC.

The Westfield Planning Board will meet again on Monday, April 16 at 7:30 p.m. Although a meeting is currently scheduled for April 2, many members will be away that Monday for the holiday weekend, chairman Robert Newell said.

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