Hopewell Twp Residents Skeptical That Competing Interests Can COAHxist

    At a packed meeting last week, the Hopewell Township planning board continued to deliberate proposed changes to the Township’s master plan. This was the second of three scheduled meetings being held to hear community thoughts and concerns regarding the potential high-density mixed-use development in the Scotch Road / Merrill Lynch area of Hopewell Township. We were there and we covered it live. If you want all the nitty-gritty, read THIS.

    At the May 2014 planning board meeting, MercerMe writer Ryan Kennedy described in “Just don’t call it a ‘town center’ — Hopewell Township Considers Revised Zoning for Scotch Road,” that “…most commenters seemed to agree that a well-planned, mixed-use development would be preferable to some of the alternatives, voicing approval for a ‘town center’ type project – though also pointing out that the term ‘town center’ may need to also go back to the drawing board, considering that the location of the project site is so far from the center of the Township, geographically.”

    However at last week’s meeting, there were literally public outcries from some in attendance demanding to be heard before the floor was open for public comment and, with emotions running high, accusations of impropriety of Township employees, officials and consultants.

    The planning board began with a thorough explanation of the procedures to review efforts taken nd provide an overview of the process going forward.

    [quote_box_left]MercerMe has covered the basics of a master plan in “Hopewell’s Merrill Lynch/Scotch Road Area Reimagined by Township Planner.” Additionally, the Stonybrook-Millstone Watershed Association “The Watershed Association” has created a helpful “Citizen’s Guide to New Jersey Municipal Master Plans.”[/quote_box_left]

    A master plan is a general document outline the town’s vision of growth and objectives to provide planning guidance to the governing body. A municipality is statutorily required to reexamine its master plan (at least) every six years — some municipalities, by practice, do it more frequently. In this case, Hopewell Township is reexamining the master plan for a variety of reasons including a prior application from a land developer and also the looming affordable housing obligations.

    A reexamination aims to identify recent problems and changes of land development in the municipality, according the Watershed Association’s primer.

    “It is not zoning,” explained Hopewell Township planner Frank Banisch at last week’s meeting, “However the master plan provides presumptive validity to zoning ordinances.”

    At this point, the planning board is conducting public hearings to ensure that the master plan reflects the long-term vision of the community and it will vote, very possibly on December 18th, on whether to adopt the master plan changes. If the planning board votes for the changes, the Township Committee will either draft or request that the planning board draft an ordinance to be presented at an additional meeting, offering another chance for public comment. Finally, the Township Committee will either adopt, modify or reject the changes to the zoning ordinance.

    Affordable Housing:

    The planning board has emphasized that one of the driving factors prompting this reexamination is the need to fulfill the Township’s COAH (pronounced: co-ah) / affordable housing obligation. Don’t be confused about COAH! We’ve got it covered with “COAH in 90 seconds: Making housing accessible, or Affordabullsh*t?” and “Hopewell Township Grabbing the AffordaBull by the Horns” because apparently we have a pun-problem.

    “This is one of the overriding factors and it cannot be ignored. What has made this frustrating is the lack of numbers from COAH. It may seem absurd but most of us are convinced the numbers won’t reduce over time,” said planning board member Rex Parker.

    While so much of COAH is up in the air right now, the one thing that all officials agree on is that there will be some affordable housing obligation.

    “This plan should be our plan, the community’s plan. It isn’t going to be nothing. It is going to be the existing zoning or something else. We’re trying to creatively move this process forward,” said planning board chairwoman Karen Murphy.

    Representatives from the Watershed Association agreed that the obligation is unavoidable but asked the Township to impose a higher percentage of affordable units for the proposed development.

    [quote_box_center]”With regard to COAH, we are firmly in the camp that Hopewell Township will get a considerable affordable housing obligation,” said Jim Waltman, Executive Director of SMWA, “But whatever the number is, it stands to reason that the lower percentage of affordable, the more development you need to satisfy the obligation. We are arguing for a larger percentage of affordable housing. This process is in response to a request by a landowner and it takes two to tango.”[/quote_box_center]

    However, many public commenters expressed dissatisfaction with affordable housing requirements and skepticism about whether those obligations will ever come to fruition.

    “The planning document should be what we see as the vision of our community not what someone else wants to impose on us,” said Hopewell Township resident Elton Clark. Another Township resident suggested that the Township should focus on suing COAH to force the affordable housing obligation numbers.

    Jennifer Curtis, also a nearby resident, cautioned about her experience living in West Windsor during the time of the builder’s remedy suit Toll Brothers v. West Windsor Township.  “Do not fight what your obligations are. West Windsor did and we had no say [in the development]. After the community of West Windsor thought they were above the obligations, they had very undesirable results.”

    IMG_3640The “Millenial” Problem:

    The planning board is considering changes to the master plan for a variety of additional reasons including the reduced marketability of office space, for which the land is currently zoned, and also the desire to attract younger individuals, known as “millenials.”

    Township planner Banisch explained at a prior meeting that the traditional office complex model is outdated and companies are moving their offices to more central locations in downtowns and cities, often with public transportation access. However, studies have shown that existing office space, including the Merrill Lynch campus, might be more desirable if housing is available for the younger workforce, according to real estate expert  Jeffrey Otteau of The Otteau Valuation Group‘s presentation this summer to the planning board.

    “Office space and housing are inextricably linked and employers are generally driven by accommodating their younger fleet of employees, millennials (people between the ages of 25-34), viewing them as the future of their industries,” Otteau said. “And younger workers are often not able to afford the housing that exists in areas like Hopewell Township due to lower incomes, lack of developed and adequate credit and higher student debt.”

    Many public comments involved a lengthy discussion about whether a development such as the proposed one would truly attract the individuals the planning board hopes. One Township resident and associate professor in the College of New Jersey’s Philosophy Department, James Taylor, prepared a lengthy document rebutting the Township planner Frank Banisch’s reexamination report.  You can find Taylor’s report on Hopewell Township’s website HERE. It can also be found on the “Save Scotch Road” website.

    “The Developer’s Proposal [note:  this is a reference to the reexamination report prepared by the Township’s planner] offers no data in support of its claim that rental housing is useful for attracting and retaining Millennials, and it offers no data to support its claim that this cohort is necessary for the healthy growth of a town,” wrote Taylor in his report.

    School Enrollment:

    Hopewell Valley Regional School District has been grappling with finding solutions to the under-enrollment issue and there appears to be some hope that this project might help alleviate the problem.

    Hopewell Township resident Diane Baratta expressed worry about the potential overcrowding effect on the school district and inquired about the Township’s plan should the proposed development cause an excess, specifically whether tax payers would have to incur the burden of constructing an additional school.

    Environmental / Community Character Concerns:

    Many public commenters cheered each other’s objections about how the proposed development would change the character of the area. Others expressed environmental concerns about the wetlands and preserving open space.

    While ultimately these groups share a common desire to preserve the current appearance of the Scotch Road area, it was clear that community character and environmental concerns are not the same.

    Some residents in attendance suggested that affordable housing be scattered throughout Hopewell Township or be located in the northern “horse farm” portion of the Township rather than creating a dense “urban center,” which the planning board documents refer to as a “village.”

    As far as environmental concerns, the Watershed Association tasked the Township to answer a slew of questions regarding the environmental impacts of the proposed vs. currently zoning. Some questions have been answered, in part, and are provided on the Township website.

    “There are things in the document that the Watershed strongly endorses — the intersection of environment, social, and economic — and supports cluster development,” said Waltman.

    However, The Watershed Association requests that the planning board provide more detailed answers to the submitted questions and not rush this decision. Further, they ask that the planning board reconsider whether the development could be consolidated on one side of Scotch Road.

    Other rural character/environmental concerns expressed included traffic impact, which although is a zoning issue rather than master plan one, was addressed by public commenters. You can find information about traffic concerns and estimated trip impacts in James Taylor’s report.

    What’s NEXT?

    Another meeting will be held on December 18th at 7PM at the Hopewell Township Municipal Building on Washington-Crossing Road.

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