Hopewell Borough Planning Board continues with redevelopment investigation

The Hopewell Borough Planning Board continued its public hearing on the “area in need of redevelopment” investigation, Wednesday night, albeit not in as much depth as had been originally intended. Due to an personal emergency, Borough planner Frank Banisch was not able to present his report of investigation to the Planning Board, but that did not stop the community from coming out and discussing the process in depth.

Banisch’s report covers the examination of potential redevelopment areas in the Borough, including three segments:

“Area A” is in the northeast part of town, situated on the southern side of the railroad tracks on Railroad Place and Somerset Street and includes the large “Hopewell 57” building and surrounding lots; “Area B” is comprised of three parcels with common ownership that includes the “Castoro” Shell gas station at 71 East Broad Street, with frontage on East Broad Street, Maple Street and Columbia Avenue; and recently added, “Area C” is Van Doren Lumber, located at 24 Model Avenue. (See MercerMe’s article: “Redevelopment Issue Packs Hopewell Borough Hall.”)

Designation of an area as “in need of redevelopment” is a legal land-use term that is essentially like rezoning, explained Planning Board attorney, Christopher H. DeGrezia, of Drinker Biddle. “The redevelopment process is like rezoning. It’s a process with the end result of coming up with a new zoning scheme but, unlike rezoning, can go into incredible detail and gives more flexibility and tax incentives. The step we’re doing today is the first step about whether the specific properties could be considered a property in need of redevelopment. At the next meeting, we are going to go through the criteria and look at the specific properties with the planner. The purpose of the Planning Board in this process is to determine whether they are ‘in need’ under the criteria.”

For a clear recent explanation and example of another investigation into whether an area would qualify as “in need of redevelopment,” see MercerMe’s article Redevelopment Plan for Pennytown Reviewed by Hopewell Township Planning Board.

Currently, the properties in “Arean A” are in the “service zone,” which means that light manufacturing or, as one board member described it “other less desirable uses,” with resulting benefits of tax advantages for town and developer and the ability for greater control about what ends up there, explained Hopewell Borough Administrator Michele Hovan.

“We are here to present and adopt (or not) this preliminary investigation for determination of an area in need — which will only offer an assessment to the governing body whether or not the parcels that the Council asked to be examined quality under the redevelopment statute to be included in the plan,” said Hovan. “This is not the plan. This is only whether properties qualify. If we get to the point where this is adopted, the report goes back to the governing body and they will either agree with the Planning Board (in whole or part) or not at all. They can accept the recommendation or reject or modify it. If Council decides to go forward — at that point — with some or all of this, then an ordinance would be adopted for the plan. That is another step for public participation. There is so much more to come in this proceeds — and it may not proceed — but if it does, it is a lengthy process and each step of it offers several opportunities for public comment.”

Two major changes to the original investigation report for determining whether the area is “in need of redevelopment” are: 1) the Borough has dropped the potential for condemnation from the equation, by resolution (See MercerMe’s article: “Hopewell Borough changes course and scope of area in need of redevelopment”); and 2) an additional property, Van Doren Lumber, located at 24 Model Avenue, has been added to the investigation at the request of the property owner, and will now be referred to as “Area C” in the updated investigation report.

“The desire has always been for a collaborative process, not just with the property owners and the governing body, but with everyone,” continued Hovan. “The future of Hopewell Borough is driven in part by the future of its remaining parcels, so that’s why we’re here. And it is a step that is overdue, in the sense that it has been in the master plan reports for some time — actually for decades. The properties could be at a higher and better use than they are right now… Even if this is adopted there is much more to come for public input that is needed and desired.”

Because the Planning Board was unable to continue a review of the investigation report due to Banisch’s absence, the Planning Board listened and responded to public comment, along with provided several reiterations explaining the redevelopment process.

One member of the public, spoke about her interest in how this process relates to the Borough’s affordable housing obligation. The concern she expressed was that, because the Borough withdrew from the affordable housing litigation, it has made itself vulnerable to builder’s remedies. (See MercerMe’s article for more about affordable housing and builder’s remedies: “COAH in 90 seconds: Making housing accessible, or Affordabullsh*t?”)

“The litigation was costing the Borough somewhere around $15,000 in 1 or 2 months,” said Council member David Mackie, explaining why the Borough removed itself from the litigation. (See MercerMe’s article: “Hopewell Borough Abandons Affordable Housing Litigation.” Mackie also said that a “good faith effort” in working toward an affordable housing plan could be very valuable in protection from potential litigation.

“Our position is and always has been that every opportunity for affordable housing is one we want to pursue and we are looking for realistic opportunities for affordable housing,” said Mackie, who went on to explain that there are essential two ways to create affordable housing, from a town’s standpoint: 1) to create the opportunity for accessory units which is done bit by bit; and/or 2) the redevelopment process.

“This is a bigger bite of the apple — a proactive approach. Affordable housing is not the only driver behind the redevelopment approach but it is a big one because we are working toward what we want, as a community, and affordable housing and configuring it in a way that fits into the Borough is a bit part of it,” continued Mackie. “Under redevelopment law you also get bonuses for creating units under a redevelopment framework. There are tax incentives both for the borough and the developer. We want to use that toward other affordable housing goals.”

Many members of the public very much were interested in knowing what the potential end-use of the properties could be, especially those living on Lafayette Street directly across from the Borough Kooltronics property, but the board cautioned that discussion on those details were still to come in future steps.

“We’re really not ‘there’ yet — we don’t even know what properties we’re talking about,” explained Planning Board member, Brad Lyons. “It will be all of us deciding how it will look.”

“Redevelopment is like re-planning. It just means that we are not being told by people we don’t know what we can do with the properties. We are being holistic,” said Hopewell Borough resident Jennifer Curtis, in support of the Council and Planning Board’s efforts. “We are being collective and proactive. This Borough is already designated as a ‘Village Center’ — the only one in Mercer County — so it can never be Manhattan. It means that we who live here — who are paying taxes — can make sure another land owner pays the juicy taxes they should. The areas should be re-planned to be as valuable as it can be.”

“We’re casting a wide net and not everything will be redeveloped and some of it might be green. The plan is to make it a living part of the town,” said Planning Board chairwoman, Jackie Perri.

Planning Board member and MercerMe contributor Ryan Kennedy outlined the additional opportunities for public participation that would be introduced into the land use process through the redevelopment, noting that now that condemnation is off the table, development could become a collaborative process between the town and each interested property owner.  Unlike a traditional land-use application where a variance request or site plan might only have one public hearing before the Planning Board with virtually no prior public input, the redevelopment process could involve multiple stages each with public hearings and additional notice. The current step, where the Planning Board is making the determination as to whether the properties qualify for the program under the Local Redevelopment and Housing law involves notice and hearings before the Planning Board and then Borough Council. Next would come a Redevelopment Plan that would outline the changes from the current zoning requirements that the areas might have in the future (types of uses, density requirements, setbacks, parking requirements, etc.). That Plan would be vetted publicly by the Planning Board and then again Council, which would approve it by ordinance – a process that requires two separate public meetings and public notice.  Then, should a property owner desire construct something on their property based on the redevelopment plan, yet another public process would start where the owner would apply to be designated as the redeveloper for their site. A “Redevelopment Agreement” outlining exactly what they can and cannot do for the project developed would be created.  That agreement is a contract between the town and the property owner, the approval of which would again require approval by the governing body at a public meeting.

The hearing will continue at the next Planning Board meeting on September 7, 2016 at 7:30PM which is also scheduled to be the continuation of another hot topic as reported here by MercerMe: the development of the 64 East Broad Street former Sun Bank/Amy Karyn site.

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