The 25-acre Hopewell Township owned property, commonly known as “Pennytown,” at the intersection of Route 31 and Pennington-Hopewell Road, is again a matter of discussion in Hopewell Township.
This past Monday, the Township Committee had the first reading of an ordinance, adopting a redevelopment plan for the Pennytown “area in need of redevelopment.” (For the full text of the ordinance, see this link.) And Thursday night, the Hopewell Township Planning Board began its review of the redevelopment plan, in order to advise the Committee as to whether it agreed that the plan conforms with the Township master plan.
In this context, “redevelopment” is an alternative to parcel rezoning and means “clearance, replanning, development and redevelopment,” as defined by the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (LRHL). (For the full statute, see N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-1).
“It functions as a special kind of zoning district that applies to a specific geographic area,” explained professional planner Brian Slaugh, who prepared the Redevelopment Plan. In this case, that geographic area is the Township owned Pennytown property.
Previously, the Pennytown property, owned by Hopewell Township, was identified as a potential future site for affordable housing in partial satisfaction of the Township’s constitutionally-mandated affordable housing obligation. While the property was purchased for that purpose (with funds from the Township’s affordable housing trust fund), the Committee has since taken that off the table.
The process of creating the Redevelopment Plan begins with a preliminary investigation, which began in June of 2009, when the Township Committee directed the Planning Board to determine whether certain areas within the municipality met the statutory criteria for declaring lands in a vicinity of being “in need of redevelopment.” In response, the Planning Board conducted the preliminary investigation to determine whether the Pennytown site met one or more of the criteria for such designation. At the conclusion of the public hearing process, in September of 2009, the Planning Board adopted a resolution that concluded that the Pennytown Site, among others, satisfied the criteria for a redevelopment area designation and recommended that to the Township Committee. On September 14, 2009, the Township Committee designated the property, along with others, as “in need of redevelopment” and authorized the preparation of a redevelopment plan. That designation remains in effect today, nearly seven years later.
However, after years of consideration and deliberation by the Township Committee on how to use the property for the affordable housing purchase it was purchased for, in July 2015 the Committee requested that the Planning Board remove Pennytown from consideration in the affordable housing plan.
“Since it was removed from the formal plan, we had conversations to figure out how to reduce the carrying costs if we’re not using it for a public interest,” said Hopewell Township Mayor, Kevin Kuchinski. “In broad terms, we talked about how to move forward. The first option was to put it up for sale with a public auction but, with that, anything a developer came forward with that is consistent with underlying zoning would be permitted. The other option was to look at a redevelopment plan because it provides 1) additional guidance and control over the use and aesthetic and other design elements of the property and 2) allows for the best use of the property while retaining input. This is an opportunity to balance.”
Monday’s ordinance, when ultimately adopted at its final reading, will approve the Pennytown Redevelopment Plan which will dictate the permissible uses for the property once the Township sells it. A redeveloper looking to deviate from the plan would most likely need approval by the Township Committee for an amendment to the plan (as opposed to the zoning board granting a use variance, under the traditional land use process). The Planning Board would have input in reviewing subdivision and site plan proposals for the ultimate project.
“The redevelopment plan outlines the broad constructs of what can go onto the site and guides the redevelopment process,” said Mayor Kuchinski.
The Redevelopment Plan, which was not created until this year, carves the property into three separate land use districts:
- General Commercial: transportation and traveler’s services, excluding lodging, and other automobile-oriented and convenience services are intended for this land use category… also provides opportunity for office, commercial recreation, leisure and similar retail sales and services;
- Historic Preservation: preserve the existing single-family house in the northeast corner of the redevelopment are but also allow for historically sensitive adaptive reuse for small scale lodging or office use;
- Conservation Open Space: The Stony Brook Branch stream corridor and pond on the that is designated for open space retention as defined by its existing 150-foot stream corridor easement which encompasses the south and southwest of the tract except for a small triangular shaped portion in the extreme southwest corner which has been included because it is too small to develop under General Commercial standards.
The permissible uses in a general commercial land use district are relatively consistent with the existing zoning, Shopping Center 1. Specific additional conditional uses are permissible, mostly notably a motor-fueling station with a convenience store, should a developer meet certain criteria spelled out in the Redevelopment Plan. During public comment, former mayor Harvey Lester spoke as a resident and expressed a concern that the design encourages a Wawa/Quikcheck superstore, similar to what had been previously denied on RT31 by the Zoning Board. (See Hopewell Township Zoning Board Facing Suit Over Convenience Store.)
Further, with only onsite sanitary sewage and onsite wells, the Township has determined a 8000 gallon per day water usage limit, which is self-limiting to the possible uses for the property.
No residential use is permitted in the general commercial district, a stark contrast to the Township’s original intent for the property, affordable housing. Planning Board Chair Karen Murphy inquired why residential use was specifically excluded and was informed that the instructions from the governing body was to exclude residential when preparing the Plan.
“My understanding is that when the whole area was being considered there were several hundred housing units prosper for the area that was not well-received by the community, plus RT 31 creates an opportunity for highway or transportation uses on this site,” explained Slaugh.
However, Murphy disagreed with such a limitation, “You’ve swung the pendulum to the other side in response to the public’s resistance to the large number of residential units,” said Murphy, “But I’m not sure they would object to a limited number but it is not even permitted the way it is written right now and I think they’d rather see a house than a commercial office building.”
Procedurally, the Planning Board will continue to review and discuss the Redevelopment Plan at the September regular meeting, however it the Township Committee that is the governing body that passes the Plan.
“Once the redevelopment plan is finalized, our professionals expect that we will receive multiple design concepts and bids based on the redevelopment specs,” explained Mayor Kuchinski. “We will evaluate these proposals based on the specific plans they present for the site, as well as the dollar figure they offer for the site. As outlined in the plan document, the Township will also have additional input during this phase to help ensure that the resulting development is done in a way that is high quality and fits into the surrounding area.”
“The intent is to have a full public and open process and we can push this after the start of school,” said Mayor Kuchinski.
“I agree and want everyone to know that the intention is to move forward with the sale of Pennytown as an open process,” said Committeewoman Julie Blake, “It is a debt burden that we are all paying and not a source of income so we want to move forward.”
The Planning Board will continue to review the Pennytown Redevelopment Plan at its September 22, 2016 Planning Board Meeting, at 7PM at the Township Municipal Building.