At a well attended Hopewell Township Planning Board meeting last night, the Board completed its prescribed task of determining whether certain parcels of property, specifically in the Scotch Road / Merrill Lynch area of the Township, qualify as “areas in need of redevelopment.” 

The Planning Board conducted this investigation at the direction of the Township Committee  “…to undertake an expedited investigation of the sites commonly described as CF Hopewell, Hopewell Township and CHS, and more specifically described as Block 91, Lots 3.11, 3.14, 3.161, 3.181, 3.191, 3.22, 3.95 and 3.961 and Block 93, Lots 3.01, 5.01 and 6.01 to determine whether the proposed area constitutes an area in need of redevelopment in accordance with the criteria set forth in N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5”.

This process is a land use planning tool that seeks “to rebuild or restore an area in a measurable state of decline, disinvestment, or abandonment. Redevelopment may be publicly or privately initiated, but it is commonly recognized as the process governed by the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law and undertaken in accordance with a redevelopment plan adopted by the municipality. If used correctly, it can transform an underutilized or distressed area into an economically viable and productive part of the community,” according to the Redevelopment Handbook, A Guide to Rebuilding New Jersey’s Communities.

In making its decision, the Planning Board reviewed the conditions of each property in question and compared them with the statutory criteria for designating an area in need of redevelopment. Ultimately, the goal is to recommend (or not recommend) that the subject properties should be designated as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment.

“This is a limited mission, specifically tasked with whether recommend that the properties in question become an ‘area in need of redevelopment’ or not,” said Hopewell Township Planning Board attorney Frank Linnus. “This is Hopewell Township’s first step. The second step is that it goes to the governing body which will take action as it chooses with the record from tonight… with a public hearing.”

“This is a binary question — whether the criteria applies or not,” explained Township Planner, Frank Banisch.

Aided by Banisch’s investigation report, the Board reviewed the statutory criteria, specifically (c), (d), (e) and (h) of N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5:

  • C. Land that is owned by the municipality, the county, a local housing authority, redevelopment agency or redevelopment entity, or unimproved vacant land that has remained so for a period of ten years prior to adoption of the resolution, and that by reason of its location, remoteness, lack of means of access to developed sections or portions of the municipality, or topography, or nature of the soil, is not likely to be developed through the instrumentality of private capital.
  • D. Areas with buildings or improvements which, by reason of dilapidation, obsolescence, overcrowding, faulty arrangement or design, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, excessive land coverage, deleterious use or obsolete layout, or any combination of these or other factors, are detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community.
  • E. A growing lack or total lack of proper utilization of areas caused by the condition of the title, diverse ownership of the real property therein or other conditions, resulting in a stagnant or not fully productive condition of land potentially useful and valuable for contributing to and serving the public health, safety and welfare.
  • H. The designation of the delineated area is consistent with smart growth planning principles adopted pursuant to law or regulation. 

As a whole, the Board determined that (c) was not applicable to any of the parcels and would not consider it as a reason for redevelopment designation but did review the applicability of the remaining (d), (e) and (h).

While the task was narrowly prescribed, the Board engaged in some discussion about the history of the area and the potential motives of the landowners, much of which was not able to and did not play a role in the ultimate decision by the Board.

“We should remind ourselves that the current owner of the property was not involved in negotiating the GDP [general development plan],” said Board member Larry Clarke. “A new buyer came in, acquired a very large parcel, opted to divvy it up with multiple owners — which is a criteria for redevelopment and self-created. The reason is not that it can’t be developed but that there is a more profitable way to develop it. We are not dealing with a landowner who has struggled to use this property for years. This is someone who has come in from far away and has made a good return on their investment and maximize their final parcels with as much profit as possible.”

Board Chairwoman Karen Murphy cautioned that, while it is difficult to not surmise the motive, “we’ve been directed to look at this and whether it is applicable or not.” The Board was also advised by its attorney that “what is at issue is whether the property qualifies for any of the criteria.”

For information on viability of commercial properties in New Jersey, see MercerMe’s article, Real Estate Expert Analysis to Inform Hopewell Township Planning on Scotch Road.

Criteria contained in (d) was a point of major discussion, specifically with regard to what constitutes “welfare of the community.” Banisch explained, in his report, that the Scotch Road area was meant to provide the Township with more tax ratables and that the layout is obsolete. “While the former Merrill Lynch office campus represents a highly attractive iteration of the regional office node concept, one Hopewell Township hopes to build upon, nonetheless changes in the office market have made the previously secured entitlements of questionable value in today’s market. Attachment B details the GDP approval history, which affects all of the non-municipal parcels…. CF Hopewell, the owner of most undeveloped lands and prime current beneficiary of the GDP approvals, has requested that the Township reconsider the settlement with respect to the type of developmentpermitted, and asked that residential and mixed use be permitted.”

For more on a proposed continuing care facility in partnership with Capital Health Hospital, see MercerMe’s article Future Senior Center on Scotch Road makes headway in Hopewell Township.

With regard to criteria (e), the Board spoke about the numerous applications by CF Hopewell to explore altnerative uses for the properties beyond what is permitted in the “OP” (Office Park) zone, which is what the properties are predominantly zoned.

Banisch’s report suggested which criteria he recommended applied to specific parcels and the Board reviewed and made changes.

“We’re trying to apply smart planning which is why we prepose applying (e) to the west side,” said Board member Rex Parker. “It is two paths we didn’t wish we had to choose.”

Members of the public spoke adamantly against such designation cautioning the Board about the future of the property. “This board is going to issue this decree with a rush,” said Township resident Harvey Lester, urging the planning board to protect the west side to the applause of the public in attendance. “Anyone can look at the fields on the west side of Scotch Road, anyone can conclude that designating the west side is insane.”

“Most of the property on the west and some on the east is farmland and to call that unproductive seems to be counter to what the Township wants,” said Mike Pisauro, Policy Director at Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. “Farmlands are not unproductive and it would be a criteria without meaning especially on the west side.” Pisarro also referred to discussions, in 2016, during which Scotch Road owners requested additional kinds of development with trade-offs to minimize the impacts on the west side.

Township resident Kim Johnson asked the board to vote “no” and enter into a resolution to make a statement to the Committee.

In a roll call vote, the Board voted 5 in favor of the recommendation to the Committee for designation of the Scotch Road properties as an “area in need of redevelopment,” with one Board member, Larry Clarke, voting against.

“I need more than a hunch and I am thankful… the [representative from] Watershed who reminded me of our discussion in November and December about the east side/west side discussions,” said Clarke. “I appreciate everyone’s input and unfortunately Mr. Lester’s statements may prove accurate.”

“The Committee asked us to do this for a reason and I trust the members,” said Board member Father Frank Belmont in favor of his vote. “We need to honor the request.”

With regard to land preservation, Chairwoman Murphy explained, “This board has always tried to preserve land but our job is to plan — and plan for growth. We are not supposed to plan to disallow things from being built. We are not opposed to growth happening in the Township. We want growth to be smart, sustainable and environmentally sensitive.”

The next step is for the Township Committee to review the findings of the Planning Board and take action at a public hearing. The Planning Board also intends to review the additional two areas as areas in need of redevelopment — Klockner and Zaitz, beginning with Klockner at next month’s meeting.