(Adapted with permission from the March 21, 2013 statement by Hopewell Township Planning Board member Lawrence Clarke preceding his “No” vote on a joint redevelopment)
In 2002, Hopewell Township adopted a governing Master Plan “dedicated to preserving, protecting and enhancing Hopewell’s natural and cultural resources.” Elected officials expended great resources enforcing those principles and defending strict, science-based zoning that recognized what the land could handle.
Fast-forward to the present. The Township Committee is on the verge of partnering with a private landowner to create the largest subdivision Hopewell has seen in many, many years, on rural land with no existing water or sewer service. The plan would create a brand-new “light-industrial hamlet” of 350 single-family homes, townhouses, and apartment units, plunked between the historic boroughs of Pennington and Hopewell, abutting a tributary of the Stony Brook.
Proponents of the plan say it will help fulfill Hopewell Township’s affordable housing obligations. They say it makes sense to pool property owned by a private landowner, Kooltronic, with township-owned land in the area known as Marshall’s Corner. A partnership, they argue, will allow affordable units to be mixed with market-rate housing. Kooltronic says it has the right to build 255 units on its land under a court settlement. Ideally, a joint project would give the township a say in the character of that development.
Unfortunately, trying to balance the goals of a private landowner with those of the township could have severe unintended consequences. The township has adopted guiding principles aimed at limiting growth. Kooltronic has a stated goal of pursuing maximum development. It has already sued the township once to achieve that end.
As a member of Hopewell Township’s planning board tasked with assessing the joint redevelopment plan, I’ve been watching this balancing act up close. The signs have not been encouraging:
— We have already heavily subsidized the cost for a developer to build high-density residential development in our township.
The proposed plan has cost taxpayers more than $200,000 so far in fees for consultants—a cost that would normally be borne by a developer. That’s on top of more than $6 million that the township paid for the former Pennytown property across from Kooltronic’s land.
We have a special planner who has defended a plan for dense, large-scale development geared toward the developer’s goal of marketability, despite the conflicting goals of our Master Plan. Based on powerful redevelopment authority that would eclipse current zoning, the paid consultants came out of the gate with a plan that included 365 housing units – 40 more than the court-imposed maximum allowed for Kooltronic’s land plus the 70 affordable housing units originally envisioned for the Pennytown site.
–The density of the proposed development far exceeds what would result from the township and Kooltronic developing their land independently.
The hamlet zoning created by the township’s 2005 settlement with Kooltronic contains some costly tradeoffs in exchange for the high density allowed. It includes a requirement that Kooltronic preserve substantial open space elsewhere in the township to offset any large-scale development. It also mandates on-site open space preservation, and it requires the developer to solve the logistical puzzle of providing fresh water and wastewater service.
In the absence of the township partnership deal, what can Kooltronic really build?
–The extent of the township’s affordable housing obligations is unclear, yet its counsel insists that it should proceed as if the old rules apply.
The fate of New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing is currently being weighed by the state’s Supreme Court. The goal of building affordable housing is laudable, but it’s foolish to move forward on a major development based on COAH requirements that are in limbo. COAH has been very lucrative for land-use attorneys and municipal planners, but it’s been terrible as a public policy tool aimed at making home ownership affordable and equitable in New Jersey.
–-Much of the planning process has aimed at making the proposed project economically feasible, instead of defending and supporting “building only what the land will support.”
When a hired engineer found that the site was not well suited for high-density residential housing, we ordered additional drilling and water testing that finally produced a report filled with mixed signals, caveats, and disclaimers. We paid for a financial impact assessment that predicted negligible effects on the school district–even though the quality of local schools would likely be the development’s greatest attraction—and buried the observation that the project is not even fiscally feasible at this time.
Finally, township officials have acknowledged that they could waive Kooltronic’s open space preservation requirements as part of a joint development project.
How many more compromises will the township be forced to make as we try to balance our interests as stewards of the land with Kooltronic’s stated desire for maximum development? The economic goals and concerns of a developer should not be our driving principles.