By Jay Cook |
MIDDLETOWN – The township’s governing body unanimously approved an extensive 150-acre redevelopment plan for the famed Circus Liquors property along Route 35 earlier this week, paving the way for decreased densities and more control over any future development.
The Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan lays groundwork for smaller zoning permissions on the mostly vacant tract of land that stretches about a half-mile from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East along Route 35 north.
This new plan permits up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space and up to 400 townhomes on the site. That is a decrease compared to a 2009 court settlement that allowed for 610,000 square feet of retail space and 504 housing units.
“Will that property be developed? It will be developed,” Mayor Kevin Settembrino said moments before his affirmative vote. “Are we taking steps to try to develop it as responsibly as possible and within as small of a footprint as possible? I think we are.”
The next step is for the governing body to work on and sign a redevelopers’ agreement with the two prospective developers/contract purchasers for the Circus Liquors property – National Realty & Development Corp. (NRDC) for the commercial portion and Toll Brothers for the residential. Both companies would still need to progress through formal site plan applications with the Middletown Township Planning Board, a process that township officials admitted could take months.
But that’s not to say Middletown’s governing body favors development on this last real piece of major developable land along Route 35.
“If it was up to me, we’d have a bunch of soccer fields on the property,” said Middletown Deputy Mayor Tony Fiore. “But I don’t own the property and the township doesn’t own the property. All we can do, from a township governing body respect, is zoning.”
“Change happens…I think we all want the same thing. I don’t think any of you want anything different than I want here,” committeewoman Patricia Snell said.
Township counsel Brian Nelson and township administrator Tony Mercantante both said Monday evening this reduced plan would help Middletown satisfy and shore up its affordable housing obligations. A Builder’s Remedy lawsuit could be filed if a settlement isn’t hashed out, Mercantante explained.
“If this were to not happen, (affordable housing advocates) would have a lot of ammunition to say the town’s not doing the right thing,” he said. “We would lose complete control over the property and things could end up a lot worse.”
Nearly 200 residents stuffed town hall Monday evening for a public hearing on the plan which lasted over five hours, into the wee morning hours Tuesday. More than 30 people, most of them in opposition, spoke on the record.
Concerns about various aspects related to any future project-specific plan were aired, but Settembrino declined to comment on them and suggested any concerned homeowners bring those questions to the formal planning board meetings.
One of the most talked about items was the traffic impact of any development to that section of Route 35. Middletown Township has hired a traffic expert to prepare a third-party traffic study of the nearby areas but it is still in a draft form and not publicly available.
“Chapel Hill Road, Bamm Hollow Road, Red Hill Road – these are going to be filled with traffic all the time and that’s going to be a real problem,” said Robert Meyer.
Elaine Lent, a parishioner at Old First Church, 69 Kings Highway, read a letter from the church’s leadership detailing major issues with increased traffic from a development.
“The impact of the proposed development will have negative effects on our church site” and traffic “would produce a dangerous excess of cars on Kings Highway going past our church,” Lent said.
Laura Patten, who lives in the Carriage Drive development off Kings Highway East, was worried about setbacks from her property line to the residential townhouse piece.
“The last thing I want is people sitting in their living rooms, looking out their windows and looking into my backyard and into my neighbors’ backyards,” she said.
Residents also challenged the actual proceedings leading up to Monday night’s meeting. Former township committeeman and Democratic candidate for office this year, Sean Byrnes, pushed the governing body to table the vote and hold public sessions with residents to discuss the traffic plans and concerns about the commercial and residential pieces.
He questioned whether any legitimate issues brought up during the five-hour-long public comment session could be addressed.
“I don’t think this process that’s been set up where you have all these people here tonight giving you comments realistically allows for those comments to go anywhere,” said Byrnes.
The redevelopment plan designation is another chapter in the nearly 25-year saga involving these parcels. A 1994 “town center” plan proposed 1.7 million square feet of retail space and 425 housing units on the property. Township officials fought that project and eventually settled in court, reaching the former 610,000-square-foot, 504-unit zone parameters.
This article was first published in the August 23-30, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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