Redevelopment Report Details Vast Mountain Hill Tract

December 22, 2017
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By Jay Cook |

MIDDLETOWN – Earlier this year Middletown’s governing body agreed to commission an “area in need of redevelopment” study for the sprawling Mountain Hill property, located along Route 35 North.

A months-long investigative report was presented to the township Planning Board last week detailing 33 properties associated with and neighboring the site, even outside of the proposed Village 35 shopping center.

That Dec. 6 board meeting was the latest in the saga of the future of the Mountain Hill property development – 118-acres of mostly undeveloped land envisioned for a 52-acre shopping center and 66 acres of housing in the heart of Middletown.

The 200-plus page redevelopment investigation was conducted by Francis Reiner of DMR Architects, a Hasbrouck Heights-based architecture and planning firm. The goal was to provide an overview of each parcel encompassing the vast property to see if it all meets the “area in need of redevelopment” statutes, which allow for changes to zoning laws and permitted uses. The entire report was approved by the planning board 5-2.

The investigative report now moves up the ladder to the Township Committee, which will review it before a vote to designate the land as an “area in need of redevelopment.” That decision could allow the township more control over all development on the site.

Reiner’s presentation touched on a number of different pieces of land which he said are in poor condition.

The first property discussed was the Circus Wines property, a 6.33-acre parcel adjacent to Route 35. Reiner said the commercial building has water damage inside and a failing roof in the rear, while also not being ADA compliant. Additionally, there is a serious sloping issue in the parking lot.

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“A significant amount of runoff has caused degradation to the parking, and is taking rain and sediment down through the parking into the storm water drains on Route 35,” he said.

Reiner discussed the Preferred Motor Car sales location on Mountain Hill property also along Route 35, saying turning onto the site “is nearly impossible,” and it provides a dangerous situation to anyone entering or leaving the property.

Six different properties with barns and houses inside the wooded tract were investigated. They are only accessible by a dirt roadway found on the township tax map as Highland Place, accessible from Route 35 North. The 14-foot wide roadway, which Reiner said is barely big enough for one car, let alone two or an emergency vehicle, has no lighting or sidewalks. He said the homes back there are “unsafe,” “unsanitary” and “falling apart.”

Further outlined in the report were homes along the southern end of the property on Kanes Lane. The two homes closest to the highway are currently occupied, but Reiner said the last one neighboring the Kanes Lane Recycling Center “is in a complete state of disrepair.” Planning board member Carl Rathjen added that homes along Kanes Lane had been investigated in the past for “what we considered dog-fighting rings.”

How the investigative report was financed raised questions from the board and public.

Planning board member Mark Davis asked why an investigation had occurred when there is a pending site plan to redevelop the area, referring to Village 35. He also questioned why taxpayer dollars should be spent on the report, leading Sanyogita Chavan, Middletown’s director of planning, to say the money came from Village 35’s escrow account.

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Resident Judy Musa called for more transparency from everyone involved.

“This is the center of town and will have the biggest impact going forward for all of us who live surrounding it,” she said. “It is of significant importance for us to know who is asking for this and who is paying for it.”

John Orrico, president of National Realty & Development Corp., the parent company of Village 35, was surrounded by his legal team and sat quietly throughout the presentation. Paul Schneider, an environmental and land use attorney representing Village 35, told the board “there is no basis” to use Village 35’s escrow money and alleged it was “improper” to do so.

If the township committee passes local legislation deeming the Mountain Hill property an area in need of redevelopment, it could leave the Village 35 application up in the air. Orrico said he predicts the Jan. 10 hearing on Village 35 will be postponed. “We’re a spectator like everybody else at this point,” he said.

Village 35 already has two tenants signed onto the 332,000-square-foot, 52-acre proposal – a 130,000-square-foot Wegmans Food Market and a 420-seat CMX Cinema movie theater. Orrico said he has interest but other retailers are waiting until a more concrete decision is made by the township.

Orrico was blunt when asked about the speed of this process.

“Baby steps,” he said.

This article was first published in the Dec. 7-14, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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