The project, located at the end of Meadowlands Parkway roughly south of Paterson Plank Road, would transform an unused piece of property into a residential gated community. The housing units would run from $300,000 to $400,000, except for 12 affordable housing units whose cost will be determined by the state. The developer, Baker Industries, agreed last week to allow the Secaucus Affordable Housing Board to administer their rental.
The project, however, has come under attack from various parts of the community, including Board of Education member Tom Troyer and former Housing Authority Commissioner Frank McCormack. Both had criticized the size of the project and the density of the housing proposed there, claiming that Town Hall has not put up a tough enough fight to stop the project.
Elwell, in defending his actions, said the town got the best deal it could from Baker, considering that the zoning regulations and approval of the project are completely in the hands of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC).
"We met with Baker to get some concessions," Elwell said. "But we have no say as to whether they get approval or not."
Elwell, however, said he had to correct some "inaccuracies" being spread through the town by word of mouth. Critics claim the project will flood the recently expanded schools with students, and that the project will put a drain on public services such as police, fire and ambulance services.
"We checked the state figures," Elwell said. "The state average shows that no more than 10 percent of the residents of developments of this kind will send kids to our schools. Baker's figures for their development in other parts of the state show that about 5 percent of the property owners have children. But even at the 10 percent figure, we're talking 21 kids. And that's not to one school, but spread around through the whole school district. That is hardly going to overwhelm our schools."
Elwell said statistics from the 25-year-old Harmon Cove residential development, which is many times the size of the proposed projects, fell into line with the state figures.
"It has to do with the size of the units," Elwell said. "Baker is only marketing 40 three-bedroom units. The rest will be two-bedroom units. People who want to have kids generally don't buy two-bedroom units."
Elwell said the school district actually took the Shiptank property - where the proposed project is slated to be constructed - into account when configuring its needs before renovating the elementary schools. In fact, he said, the land could have been used for single or two-family houses, nearly guaranteeing kids to the schools. The higher figure was used in the calculations so that the 21 students currently expected from the Baker proposal would nave no additional impact on the schools.
"Regardless of how many students are coming out of that development, they will have no negative impact on our taxes," Elwell said. "Because the property falls into the Meadowlands Commission's district, we get an $11,000 reimbursement on our tax contribution."
Will the project increase the need for public services?
Because the project would be required to meet 2002 fire safety standards, Elwell said the development would not greatly increase fire services, countering claims by MacCormack, who feared the town's 100 member all-volunteer fire department would have to become a paid force to accommodate the additional responsibilities. Elwell said other areas of town, particularly older warehouses, create more problems for fire department than the new units would.
Elwell noted a similar situation with the police department.
"These are high-end housing units and will likely attract people who are the least likely to commit crimes," he said, noting that malls and other areas of town are more apt to create problems. "That's why we've been pushing to have the hotel tax established, so we can increase services to those areas. We can always use more police. But this property won't need them."
Critics also feared that the new development would force the town to increase its ambulance services. Currently, the town has a contract with Jersey City Medical Center to keep an ambulance on call in Secaucus and another in reserve near the Secaucus border. While the town is considering increasing service, this decision has nothing to do with the new development, the mayor said. Secaucus is cris-crossed with highways, and the town must under state law respond to highway accidents. This accounts for a huge portion of ambulance calls per day. The hotel tax, which is currently being considered by the state legislature, would help fund increased services in fire, medical and police areas.
The riverwalk - of which the Baker property is only a portion - will require the establishing of a park patrol. This would be a kind of paid neighborhood watch. These uniformed personnel would receive some training in procedure and radio use, then would travel up and down the length of the trail. They would alert the police if there is a problem. Elwell said the NJMC has agreed to help fund such a group. The town's bicycle patrol - which already patrols parks and playground areas - would also be used to monitor activities along the riverwalk.
Could have been worse
According to NJMC zoning, Baker could have constructed 288 units on the property and could legally have run its streets into existing town streets.
"When this project was first proposed, they [Baker] wanted to connect their streets with ours," Elwell said. "We told them no, saying that many of those streets had been dead ends for 30 years and were too narrow to accommodate heavy traffic. Out of respect for the people who lived there, they agreed to limit access to Meadowlands Parkway."
As part of an agreement with the NJMC and the town, Baker also agreed to limit the number of townhouses on the property, develop a riverfront walkway the public can use, and to pay for the construction of the walkway - not just on their own property, but in other sections of the riverfront as well. For this agreement, Baker sought a variance from constructing of a 60-slip marina, which is required under NJMC regulations. Instead they agreed to construct a smaller marina in the public park at Old Mill Point upriver from the Shiptank property.
"People fail to understand that Baker could put almost anything on that property," Elwell said. "They could have constructed 288 low-cost homes. They could have put up hotels or office buildings with no height restriction in the waterfront zone area, and there would have been nothing we could have done about it."
Elwell said town officials will be monitoring every aspect of the construction. He said Baker will be trucking in loads of dirt to help secure the land for construction. The company will follow various precautions for dust suppression, including wetting down the soil to keep from sending clouds of dust into existing residential neighborhoods. The company will also plant quick growing grass as to temporarily hold the soil in place.
"Baker is doing everything possible to become a good neighbor," Elwell said. "They have a right to build on that property. They have done a lot to make it easy for us to accept this development."