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Officials Call On Residents To Help Fight Proposed Development

The Township Committee plans to appeal a judge's decision to allow the construction of 360 residential units in a flood-prone area.

It's going to take more than a legal appeal by the Cranford Township Committee to prevent 360 residential units from being built on Birchwood Avenue. The entire township must come together in opposition, officials said during a special meeting Tuesday night.

"I've always been a firm believer in citizen action," Mayor Dan Aschenbach told a crowd of about 30 people who gathered in town hall Tuesday night, hoping for some answers, or at least a plan of action explaining what the governing body plans to do to squelch the developer's plan for the site.

The original purpose of the special meeting was to allow the Township Committee to vote on the second reading of an to user-based fees, rather than having the fees determined by property values. The measure, which was approved at the special meeting, establishes and allows for the collection of those fees. But the majority of the residents who showed up for the meeting were there to discuss the S. Hekemian Group's plan to construct 360 residential units at the quiet corner of 215 Birchwood Ave., a street that's prone to flooding. Also mentioned was the overdevelopment of property at 555 South Ave. East, where the Lehigh Acquisition Corp. plans to build a three-story housing complex that includes163 housing units at the five-acre site, with 24 low-to-moderate income dwellings.

Last week, . The original proposal called for the construction of 419 residential units on a 15.8-acre lot in Cranford’s 0-1 Low Density Office Building Zone. The property is surrounded by single-family residential zones. Officials plan to appeal the decision, and a letter stating their intention was drafted before Tuesday's meeting.
"It's not reasonable to build this many units," the mayor said, adding that the developer "still hasn't explained how they'll deal with flooding."

The meeting was supposed to be held in the Township Committee's smaller conference room but was later moved to council chambers as a large group of residents began to assemble in the hallway. Initially, officials told citizens that since the matter involved litigation, there was very little that could be discussed. But those who showed up wanted to hear more, which led to a discussion outside the meeting room, even before the official session was called to order.

"This is the real world for these people. This is a big deal," attorney Frank Capece, a Cranford resident, said when the meeting began.
When residents began asking questions about the lawsuit during a public comment portion of the session, Deputy Mayor Kevin Campbell explained that the trial "was held before a judge. There was no jury."

Some residents, including Craig Woodruff, asked officials for a timeline, wanting to know when they could discuss more about the litigation and what the next steps in the process would be. Acting Township Attorney Diane Dabulas, who sat in for Township Attorney Dan McCarthy on Tuesday, said a transcription of the judge's decision, followed by an official order must be released and both parties involved in the suit must agree on the order. Commissioner Mark Dugan said it could be September before the order is released and the governing body can move forward.

"To me, this is a poster child for why people are afraid of affordable housing," resident Rita Labruto said.

The S. Hekemian Group of Paramus bought the property in October 2008 and proposed 356 market rate units and 63 units of low- and moderate-income housing. It then filed a suit in New Jersey Superior Court claiming that Cranford is in violation of its constitutional duty to create sufficient opportunity for the construction of low- and moderate-income housing. Peter Hekemian, the developer, did not immediately return a call for comment early Wednesday.

More than a year ago, a special master was appointed to study the case and present findings to the judge. The special master, Elizabeth McKenzie, released a report stating that the project should go forward, indicating that she did not give much weight to residents' concerns about traffic and density, given the township's constitutional obligation to provide affordable housing to its residents.

During a special Town Hall meeting early last month that allowed residents to voice their concerns on the "overdevelopment" of the property, Township Attorney Dan McCarthy recounted the Mount Laurel decisions, which state that every community in New Jersey has a constitutional obligation to allow for the building of affordable housing. The Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, was created to prevent developers from building market-rate housing with only a handful of units used for affordable housing. Under COAH, projects that served people with disabilities and low-income seniors did not count as affordable housing.

The mayor stressed the fact that all five township commissioners are opposed to the development of the Birchwood Avenue property. He said that although the town plans to appeal the judge's decision, residents also need to speak out on the issue, by writing letters to the governor and local legislators and keeping the issue in the forefront.

"We do need to stay on the same page, " Aschenbach said. The mayor also refused to sign the settlement agreement for the 555 South Ave. East case.

In two weeks, Aschenbach said, officials will be announcing plans for a "community action planning meeting."

"This is not the end of the story," he said.

PCIsMe August 04, 2011 at 02:45 PM
Ridiculous. 555 South Avenue, now a giant dirt hill, looks better than it has since the 1990s. 215 Birchwood Avenue is an abandoned office building with a sign posted "Vacant Lot." The parking lot is huge.
PCIsMe August 04, 2011 at 02:48 PM
These are the two properties that are the subjects of the fight of the 30 (?) of the 22,000 that live in this town: Dump 1 - 215 Birchwood Avenue, Cranford, NJ http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=215+Birchwood+Ave,+Cranford,+NJ&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&biw=1280&bih=596&wrapid=tlif131246861719210&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x89c3b2125ab1c4c1:0xed2f576aecae8f1e,215+Birchwood+Ave,+Cranford,+NJ+07016&gl=us&ei=OK46ToDMNYjg0QGS46H6Aw&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CBUQ8gEwAA Dump 2 - 555 South Avenue (before shot) http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&q=215+Birchwood+Ave,+Cranford,+NJ&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&biw=1280&bih=596&wrapid=tlif131246861719210&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x89c3b2125ab1c4c1:0xed2f576aecae8f1e,215+Birchwood+Ave,+Cranford,+NJ+07016&gl=us&ei=OK46ToDMNYjg0QGS46H6Aw&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1&ved=0CBUQ8gEwAA
Erica August 04, 2011 at 03:17 PM
I understand the need to develop properties that are eyesores in our town. However, the ramifications of such high density plans need to be considered as well. Will residents be willing to agree to higher taxes to pay for all the new school-age children that will need to be taught (and that includes those that are special needs, don't forget)? Or how about the larger police presence that will also be required? I just think we need to move a bit more cautiously...
PCIsMe August 04, 2011 at 03:41 PM
As the father of a child that was qualified for awhile, I appreciate your concerns. For many years, Bloomingdale School was a community center. The Clinton Baby Boom is over, replaced by less than ideal economic conditions and an aging Baby Boomer population that will be needing healthcare. Taxes are going up with or without police, fire and other burdens. Perhaps, the two developments will lead to an expansion of the tax base? Also, as it is now, are either one of these eyesores producing tax revenue? Many years ago, Cranford was offered a chance to have a great grocery store on South Avenue. Too much NIMBY shut it down, the lot adjoining the train tracks is still not producing tax revenue, and Shop Rite went to Garwood. Sorry to get cynical but this all sounds like a politician (the Mayor) trying to rally votes out of the North side.
David Del Vecchio, AIA, LEEDap August 04, 2011 at 05:15 PM
COAH is a mess; it always has been. It is bureaucracy at its best; state mandated social engineering without any concern for good design, sound urban planning, architecture that reflects the character of its place, civil engineering that provides a safe and clean town, or environmental sustainability to ensure that towns endure beyond the short-term profit of a very few. COAH lawsuits claim it is the township that is not meeting its obligation to build more affordable units, when in fact it is the developers who cannot figure out how to make more of their units affordable while turning a big, fat profit before they ride off into the sunset never to be seen again. Township officials set zoning standards that reflect the aspirations of its citizens in terms of setting the character of their towns. COAH comes along and subverts that intent.
Ann Marie Mahon August 04, 2011 at 09:15 PM
Hmmm, you think the baby boom is over? I am a member of the Newcomers Club of Cranford. Most of the women who are members are young mothers have 3 to 4 children. Most of the children are currently under the age of 10. The baby boom is alive and well in Cranford. Regarding tax base - do you really think your taxes will be lowered? I have lived here 20 years and my taxes rise consistently every year. This year's letter saying we only got a 1.5% increase was a joke. They failed to take into consideration the new and improved Water Tax that will go up annualy with our taxes. More buildings = more expenses all around.
Ann Marie Mahon August 04, 2011 at 09:21 PM
Well said David. COAH is government interferance at it's worst. Taxpayers and municipal govermnents are dictated to by greedy OVERdevelopers.
PCIsMe August 04, 2011 at 11:31 PM
Yes, the baby boom is over and Baby Boomers, born between 1946 to 1964, are aging, driving up healthcare costs. The birth rate, in 2010, was the lowest in a century. Taxes always go up because of inefficiencies associated with government services and dumb money pits - a la the community center, the very silly parking garage, etc. The below comes from the AP wire serivce.... "Forget the Dow and the GDP. Here's the latest economic indicator: The U.S. birth rate has fallen to its lowest level in at least a century as many people apparently decided they couldn't afford more mouths to feed. The birth rate dropped for the second year in a row since the recession began in 2007. Births fell 2.6 percent last year even as the population grew, numbers released Friday by the National Center for Health Statistics show. "It's a good-sized decline for one year. Every month is showing a decline from the year before," said Stephanie Ventura, the demographer who oversaw the report. The birth rate, which takes into account changes in the population, fell to 13.5 births for every 1,000 people last year. That's down from 14.3 in 2007 and way down from 30 in 1909, when it was common for people to have big families." When the economy returns, so will birth rates. But we will be experiencing an hour glass population situation.
Birchwood Bird August 05, 2011 at 01:19 AM
Both links you provided go to the same pic..215 Birchwood. That building is unused, but it is not a "dump." It would actually make a great location for medical offices, which would be an asset to our town. We don't need 360 rental apts.
Jim August 05, 2011 at 05:37 PM
This is a joke. The COAH is a mess (I have my opinions on Christie, but at least he's dismantling it), and the ONLY reason this is actually being opposed by the township is because of what we all know will happen, but nobody wants to come out and say. Our property values are going to TANK. Note that Mt. Laurel is a fine case of judicial activism by a democratic chief justice, and that, according to this poll, an overwhelming number of Democrats approved. What is Ironic is the fact that Democrats here disapprove of it. Talk about N.I.M.B.Y. http://publicmind.fdu.edu/coah/
Mary August 06, 2011 at 10:43 AM
I think our Mayor is doing a half hearted attempt to fight the development of birchwood. They should have had a plan of action ready by now. They are all bright men and am sure they have heard of the concept of Plan A and Plan B. We need people from this community to fight this 110% (please no committees set up by the township committee). Rita LaBrutto and Mark Smith would be great at handling something like this. They are fighters till the end!
LuAnn September 09, 2011 at 02:33 PM
How come no one is up in arms about the development on the Riverfront? Extra units were approved with no fanfare at all. Why is it ok to develop the South side, crowd more kids into the schools and have more traffic? It sounds like having affordable housing is fine as long as it's not in your neighborhood.
Mary Stockwood September 09, 2011 at 07:06 PM
LuAnn, Plenty of residents were up in arms about adding more apts to Riverfront at a June township meeting. The mayor, o'malley & campbell voted to add the apts anyhow.

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