The lack of working air-conditioning in the newly constructed wing left the crowd sweating and increased the discomfort of the proceedings, during which people tried to convey their frustration at local and regional officials.
Many mounted objections to a proposed 212-townhouse development on a 16-acre site in northwest Secaucus.
The project is located at the end of Meadowlands Parkway, roughly south of Paterson Plank Road. It rests in two New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) zones: the Low Density Residential and Waterfront Recreation Zone.
Under NJMC regulations, the construction of multiple family-dwelling units within the waterfront recreation and low-density residential zones is a permitted use. Of the 212 units, 76 of these will be in the low-density zone and 136 will be located in the waterfront recreation area. Of 212 units, there will be 164 two-bedroom units and 48 three-bedroom units.
The developer, Baker Industries, nevertheless needs to get two variances from the NJMC to build the development.
In the first variance, Baker has asked to relocate the required marina off-site to a public park proposed for Mill Point at the end of Millridge Road. In the second variance, Baker is asking to be able to construct some of the 76 units in the low-density zoned area at slightly over 38 feet high, when NJMC commission rules restrict height to 35 feet in that area.
The NJMC has eight weeks to make their ruling on the development. They can consider residents' comments from Tuesday night and make adjustments before the vote, but they are not obligated to do so. (See sidebar page 7.) During that time, they will also seek permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection and Army Corps of Engineers.
If approved, soil would be carted in to the site over the next few months to help build up the base, and construction would start next spring with initial sales slated for Sept. 2003. The housing units would run from $300,000 to $400,000, except for the 12 affordable housing units whose cost will be determined by the state. The local Affordable Housing Board would likely take applications.
Schools are a huge concern
The lack of heat seemed to lend credence to arguments that the project would put an increased burden on schools already struggling to keep up with the growing population.
While town officials, including Mayor Dennis Elwell and Town Administrator Anthony Iacono, tried to soothe people's concerns by assuring them the school staff took this project into consideration when implementing its $6.9 expansion to the elementary school two years ago, some parents were not satisfied.
One resident said recent budget cuts in the school had already increased some class sizes from 16 to 22 students per class, a problem this project might make worse.
Iacono argued that townhouses generally did not have a significant impact on schools, since families tended to move out of them once they started having kids. He said state figures showed an average of one child per 10 units. In this case, this would result in about 21 children entering the school system. Although Baker's professional planner echoed these figures, other residents said Secaucus is changing and some townhouse development will exceed that average.
Elwell also noted that a significant part of the increased cost for such students would be offset by tax refunds from NJMC, which refunds about $11,000 per student to every town that has students in its jurisdiction.
Overshadowing this debate is the fact that voters are being asked to approve a $14 million bond in September to expand the middle school/high school complex.
Board of Education Member Tom Troyer, who is currently running for Town Council, came out against the project, although he agreed the town had little power to stop it. He asked member of the NJMC to reject the variances, forcing Baker to conform to zoning requirements.
Second Ward Councilman Bob Kickey, against whom Troyer is running, said while he had concerns over the project, he felt the school system had taken into account any increase.
Gated community v. traditional neighborhood
Representatives of Baker Industries showed plans that would provide one active entrance and exit to the property via Meadowlands Parkway. Another gate would exist off a cul-de-sac near Village Place, but this would only be used for emergencies.
The front gate would allow non-residents to access a 12-spot parking lot for the public riverfront walkway, but an electronic gate to the rest of the development would block anyone who lacked an access code.
Some residents were concerned over lack of a traffic study or plan, noting that the main entrance only had a stop sign at the point at which vehicles existed onto a busy ramp off Route 3 West and Meadowlands Parkway.
"I don't believe a stop sign is enough," said John Garafolo, saying that a study is necessary to determine what impact the project would have on traffic during peak hours.
At times during the hearing, observers may have struggled to determine which part of the community was seeking a gated community: the developers or residents of the older neighborhood near the development site.
Although resident Don Roberts suggested gates to allow residents of the new development to access the older neighborhood, other residents shouted their disapproval. Several residents along the currently dead-end streets of Grace Avenue, Hagan Place, Juliann Terrace and Paulanne Terrace, insisted the developer install a fence along the townhouse property line to keep kids from exiting the development to walk to school a few blocks away. These residents preferred busing kids to the schools via Meadowlands Parkway. They also objected to another resident's suggestion that pedestrian gates be installed to allow residents of the development to walk to local stores or the bus stops on Paterson Plank Road. Resident Carolyn Aragon said the original drawings issued to resident showed a fence along the perimeter.
Members of the Rozanski family, residents of the area, raised the strongest objections, and asked why the town had not provided an attorney for the residents.
Ralph Merlo also questioned safety issues concerning a three-foot deep-water retention basin that seemed to lack anything to keep kids out. Baker is considering installing a fence around it as a result, but resisted putting up a fence along the whole property line.
Several residents feared gates would allow townhouse residents to park on already crowded town streets. Baker said ample parking in the development had been proposed, well exceeding the zoning requirements.
Living in different worlds?
The division between old and new residences raised more fundamental issues. In seeking a variance for the height for residential units closest to the old neighborhood, several residents felt the buildings would tower over them. The new development would reach nearly 39 feet high in a zone that calls for 35 feet maximum. But the maximum imposed by NJMC is five feet higher than the town normally allows.
Residents raised concerns about potential for flooding, lack of air and light and other issues, including the fact that some residents - particularly along Paulanne Terrace - would face a wall of buildings where open space previously existed.
While the developer will install a buffer of soil and trees to allow for these issues, residents in the area have lived with that space open for so long, it has served them as a park. Kids skated in frozen puddles there, played basketball on one of the court, and residents routinely walked their dogs there.
Sam Maffei, a resident of Paulanne Terrace, questioned the developers on a variety of issues, from the foundation uses to the sewage issues.
Frank McCormack, an outspoken critic of the project, said the density of the project bothered him, and said the area should be one- and two-family homes, not townhouses.
Many residents questioned the impact the project would have on service and the potential rise in costs for police, fire, ambulance and other services.
Iacono said a review of the department heads involved showed a marginal increase of about $38,000 a year. Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan, who supported the project and encouraged the planting of native New Jersey plants in the buffers, said Iacono's estimates were overly optimistic, pointing to a national study that showed residential development nearly always cost more in services than the taxes brought in from them.
Another resident, Harry Block, criticized the lack of oversight by the NJMC for violations of the zoning in the past.
Elwell noted that as part of the agreement, the developers would construct a riverwalk along the length of the property as well as in other sections of the town. This would be open to the public, and would help allow the developer to escape having to build an on-site marina as one of the requirements for the water recreational zone.
Chuck Thomas, the engineer for the project, said Baker could not construct the marina because it violated state and federal laws, and imposed an unreasonable burden on the developer. Mudflats at low tide would leave boats resting on soil. While the developer could create floating docks and put them out into deeper water, these would interfere with navigation. By moving the marina to a public park at Mill Point, the developer would avoid numerous safety issues, Thomas said.
Councilman John Bueckner said that while he felt the housing development may be the best use of the land, moving the marina concerns him.
"When there was development proposed property on Nautical property near the Mill Point," Bueckner said, denoting property recently purchased by the town and NJMC as part of plans for the park, "we raised concerns about the marina that development proposed. We did not want to see cars dragging huge boats down that narrow road. That issue still concerns me." A continuing conflict
Since 1970, when what was then called the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission imposed new zoning regulations on sections of 14 towns in Bergen and Hudson Counties, local residents fought to maintain home rule and lost.
Although residents in the area of the proposed development raised concerns about numerous issues, they were actually confronted with the same issue others have faced in the past. In setting up the HMDC (now the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission) in the late 1960s, the state imposed zoning requirements different from those operating under the standard Municipal Land Use laws.
Residents confronting the Shiptank project, as residents who opposed projects in the past such as Allied Junction and a variety of malls and residential developments, found that local ordinances - established under the 1947 state constitution for land use - no longer applied in areas governed by the NJMC.
Projects in such areas could be higher and more densely packed than in traditional residential settings, and local residents fighting the imposition of such projects had no way to stop them once proposed.
"If a local official proposed a project like this, we could vote him or her out of office," said one frustrated town employee after a public hearing on Tuesday. "But with the HMDC running things, they can do what they like and we have to take it." The HMDC was set up to oversee the orderly development in the Meadowlands partly because of feuding municipalities. The lack of a regional department on housing and other development allowed municipal land use boards to avoid the costly impact of residential development by refusing to zone for such communities in their master plans. Towns thus began to acquire "safe" development like warehouses, trucking terminals and light industry. The HMDC (now NJMC) rules were designed to allow the Meadowlands a better mix of development.
The problems as several local critics pointed out at the meeting, came with the establishing of zoning. Instead of following existing state law, the NJMC created zones that differed slightly. So its low-density housing zone allows for three storied structures when more standard state municipal zoning calls for two.
Secaucus, of which 88 percent is ruled under NJMC's zoning, suffered acutely, leaving sections where single and two family homes sat side by side with NJMC-approved townhouses and mini-developments. Since the NJMC required new construction to build at higher levels to avoid flooding, rain run off often contributed to flooding of older neighborhoods.
To help curb some of the obvious lack of home rule incurred by NJMC regulation, the state created the Hackensack Meadowlands Mayors Committee, which could temporarily halt a project if a majority of the 14 mayors voted against it. Former Mayor Anthony Just managed in 1993 to delay the groundbreaking for Allied Junction Rail Transfer Station with his veto. Mayor Dennis Elwell recently imposed a similar veto on improvements to Croxton Rail Yards in Jersey City. But Just said the veto was a flawed too, because the NJMC has the power to override it.
Former Mayor Paul Amico - under who administration the new zoning was imposed - fought the zoning for years in court, and lost, as courts ruled that regional planning superceded local interests.
Three years ago, newly elected Elwell requested the NJMC to better align its zoning with the Municipal land use zoning, but the NJMC took no action to change its rules. This lack of action was partly due to the risk of lawsuits from the developers of several proposed long-term projects based on the NJMC's current zoning.
Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan said, however, the NJMC may get a chance to rectify its early mistake as officials gather to set up a new master plan for the Meadowlands. - Al Sullivan