At a packed meeting Wednesday night, the Hopewell Borough planning board held a public hearing on the Borough’s proposal to designate two areas in the Borough as being “in need of redevelopment.” 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.
“We’ve been looking at the concept of redevelopment within the Borough over a period of years, mostly in context in areas where it seems the zoning is out of step,” explained Councilman and planning board member David Mackie. “We’re looking at the interior of the town and figuring out how best to use the land we have. We also have a lot of new businesses in town and people who come here with interesting ideas that draw people to the town and a lot of economic development and we are at a critical mass that makes Hopewell a destination.”
Mackie explained that the governing body has three options with regard to the properties in question: 1) Do nothing and wait for a developer or land owner to request a change. In this situation, the applicant would require a lot of variances which is very cumbersome and expensive. 2) Change zoning to suit more of the future uses. This would involve significant public input and careful consideration about the needs of the community and the benefits to it. 3) Use the state redevelopment statute that provides a framework for a collaborative process between property owners, potential developers and the community. The same questions and public input opportunities would arise in re-zoning (option #2) about benefit to the community, however, the redevelopment statute provides additional opportunities not available otherwise including a collaboration between municipality, land owners and potential developers to specifically outline and achieve whatever is beneficial to the community. There are also fiscal benefits with redevelopment because the statute allows for tax abatements and the municipality can use the tax revenue, without passing as much of it to the county, for other public purposes.
Check out MercerMe’s article from last year: Developer Wants to Build Affordable Housing in Hopewell Borough
Furthermore, explained Mackie, if the potential development incorporates affordable housing, there are additional bonuses available in a redevelopment area.
The process of declaring an area “in need of redevelopment” began with the Borough Council instructing the planning board to look at areas that might be in need of redevelopment and the planning board requesting a professional report assessing the properties to determine whether they meet the criteria outlined in the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL). Right now, the planning board is in between steps 3 and 4. The next step will be for the planning board to complete the hearing and make recommendations to the Borough Council as to whether the properties met or did not meet the criteria for “in need of redevelopment.” For the planning board and the members of the public, Borough planner Joanna Slagle from Banisch Associates, explained the process and the 8 criteria.
“We are at the very beginning of a long process that takes several years if we’re lucky and right now we’re at the preliminary investigation report which is to just identify parcels in town that can meet the criteria of a redevelopment area. The investigation report goes through the criteria and figure out whether the property meets the criteria or not,” said Slagle.
“There is no redevelopment plan right now. There is no developer in the sidelines. Part of what initiated this discussion was the owners of the Kooltronics property expressed interest in redevelopment of their property and we knew that Castoro’s was for sale — both in motion on some level and all coinciding with the question of what to do. We need to have general discussions about what we want to see in that part of town, how those pieces fit together with what is already there, what opportunities that would create and what the impact on the infrastructure would be. In this process, we are soliciting the input of all the landowners,” Mackie explained.
While this process has been in the works for some time, the investigation was originally limited to a redevelopment process that would specifically not include condemnation or eminent domain, however, in the beginning of May, the council instructed the planning board to change its course and conduct an investigation so that it might include the use of condemnation in a future redevelopment plan.
In an open letter to the Borough and property owners in the areas, the council attempted to explain the process and reasoning for changing from a “non-condemnation” to a “condemnation” redevelopment area.
Under the State Constitution, the government may only take property by eminent domain for a “public purpose” which traditionally is clear — streets, sewer lines, schools, train stations, etc. However, under the “Blighted Areas” clause of New Jersey’s 1947 Constitution, if a town finds that a property is “in need of redevelopment” (which had been also referred to as “blight”), acquisition to turn over property to a redeveloper is allowed to be considered a public purpose and the property can be taken even without the owner’s consent.
Because of the fear about condemnation, many property owners came to the planning board hearing to voice their concerns. One such individual is local business owner, Melissa Cookman, who recently purchased a property on Seminary Avenue at the former Doll Museum location for her Borough-based shop, Twine., and who did not receive notice of the hearing as she should have.
“I just purchased a piece of property in this redevelopment area and I’m concerned that I will redo the new property and that it could be a waste,” said Cookman to the planning board.
Other residents expressed concerns about the historical integrity of the town, problems with traffic and pedestrian safety, soil contamination, and the close proximity of CSX tracks to potentially more residential density.
“I hope the decisions you make are those that your children would make and your grandchildren would want to be part of,” said one local business owner.
“A lot of my favorite places are under this umbrella and this makes a lot of people uncomfortable and the lack of plan doesn’t make me feel more comfortable. We want an explanation about what the board needs to hear from the public as we go forward in this process. There are historic things we don’t want to lose,” said a long-time Borough resident.
The planning board made it clear that all these concerns were ones that were useful input but that the timing might not be right for some of it. “What we want down the road are ideas and public input and what the public envisions. That’s what we would like to hear — not tonight because that’s not our charge tonight — but we want to hear form you and people are encouraged to come to the meetings,” explained board member Brad Lyon.
The Board responded to the concerns about the use of condemnation, noting that it was a decision for the governing body, and that direction about condemnation does not change the criteria for the planning board’s investigation. “The process that Joanna laid out is frustrating but Council gives an instruction and we are just going through the list. [Condemnation] is not for this board to weigh-in on,” said board member Ryan Kennedy. “It is our job to go through the properties and determine whether the properties fit the criteria but condemnation authority is up to the Council.”
Taking public testimony well past 11:00, the Board determined that the hearing will continue at the July 6th planning board meeting at 7:30 where there will be a continuation of the review of the redevelopment report and additional public input. “If you are a property owner and disagree with the report, now is the time to provide information to the Board,” said Kennedy.
“I want us to drive the boat. I want this community to move forward with this and for it to be a collaborative process. If we can figure out as a community what we would like or not like to see, we can be in the position to encourage the things we actually want,” said Mackie.
Disclosure: MercerMe contributor Ryan Kennedy is a member of the Hopewell Borough Planning Board.