MORE TESTIMONY, BUT NO VOTE ON WOODMONT

Cranford Chronicle
Friday, July 13, 2007
By LESLIE MURRAY

CRANFORD -- The fourth Planning Board hearing on an application to construct a luxury age-restricted community on Birchwood Avenue stretched into the wee hours Wednesday night, but it will be at least another two months before the board decides whether to endorse the plan.

In a meeting that went until midnight, the only vote the board members took centered on whether they would continue the meeting until a later date, with five of the nine members voting to hold full public comment at another meeting. The final public comment and deliberation by the Planning Board will take place on Sept. 19.
Woodmont Properties is seeking to build 124 market rate and eight affordable townhouse units on a 15-acre parcel of property on Birchwood Avenue, where two office buildings now stand. The residences could be owned only by people age 55 and up. The application seeks a zone change from the current O-1 zone, which allows low density office space. At the conclusion of the hearings, the Planning Board will make a recommendation, but the Township Committee must ultimately approve the change.

Woodmont's attorney, Phil Morin, has said the project would provide a sorely needed type of housing in the community and would be a financial boost to the township by adding ratables on property that is zoned to inutility.

However, objecting residents have said the project is too dense for the quiet neighborhood, adding that the applicant had not provided adequate information to prove that the project would not exacerbate traffic and flooding on Birchwood Avenue and the surrounding streets.

Wednesday's meeting featured additional testimony from the project planner, Daniel McSweeney of Schoor DePalma. Also on hand to answer questions from the board were municipal tax assessor Peter Barnet and Stan Slachetka of T& M Associates, the township's planning consultant.

McSweeney said that based on the 2005 tax figures, the maximum development permitted by the current zoning -- 77,650 square feet of office space -- would have a $133,709 annual net return for Cranford, with the school district gaining $106,877 and the township $26,832 once tax payments are weighed against the cost of municipal services.

He then went on to say that the proposed active adult community, including only the market rate entities, would have an $813,470 net annual return -- the schools would get $676,052, and the township $137,417. McSweeney said the proposed active adult community would have "clearly a positive fiscal impact."

Board member Ann Darby responded that the purported financial benefits hinged almost exclusively on the planned selling prices of the residences, listed in the analysis as $604,500 for the larger units and $465,000 for the smaller units. She asked if market studies had been done to find the selling price, and if the estimated price per unit was a conservative or aggressive number.

Stephen Santola, executive vice president and general counsel for Woodmont, said that with the housing market in flux, the price was based in part on the experience of other Woodmont projects and also on a nearby active adult community, The Pointe in Garwood. Saying that Woodmont would offer more upscale housing stock, Santola said that prices listed were "not a super-aggressive number."

Planning Board member and Township Commissioner David Robinson said that another assumption of the project calls for all of the units to sell at the initial offering rate. He asked if the financial analysis took into account the fact that the price per unit may have to be reduced.

McSweeney said there is always room for error in a financial analysis; however, he felt the proposed selling prices were appropriate for the units planned.
Darby went on to say that the analysis also assumed that the full 124 units would be approved for the property and asked why the developer felt the number was defensible.

McSweeney said that the proposed density of 8.3 units per acre was "consistent with other multifamily districts in the community."
However, Darby responded that the actual buildable acreage on the parcel is only nine acres; using that figure in the calculation, the density would be 14.6 units per acre.

Asked by the board to evaluate McSweeney's fiscal analysis, Slachetka and Barnet said that he had used the appropriate methodology. However, Slachetka said that the financial analysis was "a piece of the puzzle" and not the only information to be considered.

Speaking to Barnet, board member Karen Capone asked about the per unit annual tax rate for the project. He said the estimate would be in the "low $8,000s" per unit.
Capone then asked about the maintenance fees for the project, which Santola said could be around $200 to $300 per month, or $2,400 to $3,600 annually. She asked if that combined cost would be out of line with the existing taxes in the township.
Santola said that the estimates would be within range and point to a lifestyle choice made by residents of active adult communities.
For the most part, members of the public who questioned McSweeney took exception with his testimony.

Rita LaBrutto, a vocal opponent of the project, said the Garwood project that Woodmont had used as a point of comparison had yet to sell out, presenting current real estate listings from the site. While the applicant said it was not a fair comparison, Planning Board Attorney Nick Giuditta said the information carried some weight.

Michael Caulfield, a current Board of Education member, also objected, saying that if the developer was so confident the project would provide a positive tax impact to the township, the company should be required to post a performance bond or hold a large amount in escrow.

When public comment started at nearly 11 p.m., it took on much the same tone, though there were some supporters of the project.

Cara Cappello said that she came out to the meeting after getting a flyer at her home. She said the flyer, which outlined the "objectionable" aspects of the project, contained no names or phone numbers, a fact she called "suspect." She called the Birchwood Avenue site a "natural place for this housing."

But most of the residents who spoke did not share her opinion. Resident Frank Krause said the project would negatively impact the flooding in the area.
"It would be absolutely hypocritical to seek federal funding (for the Northeast Quadrant Flood Control Project) and then allow building at the headwaters of Casino Brook to create a bigger problem," Krause said.

Gordon Smith, who said he enjoys the neighborhood because of the low traffic levels and quiet atmosphere, said the project would be "detrimental" to the township as a whole.

"This is the face of the town. The people who pay to live here, not the people paid to come here and say this will be good for Cranford," Smith said.

With only a small portion of the public comments completed, the September meeting will see the conclusion of comments and most likely a decision by the Planning Board.

Leslie Murray is a staff writer for the Chronicle. She can be reached at (732) 396-4205 or lmurray@njnpublishing.com.