The Planning Board voted, in a special meeting last night, that the 5.06-acre property at the corner of Sunset and Bloomfield avenues does not meet the criteria of an “area in need of redevelopment”.
The property, which is now occupied by a special needs school called Spectrum360 (formerly The Children’s Institute), was the subject of a settlement last year that could turn it into 300 new apartments, including 60 units that would qualify as affordable housing, helping Verona to meet what appears to be a much higher requirement for affordable housing units. At its January 7 meeting, the Town Council passed a resolution asking the Planning Board board to determine whether the property met redevelopment criteria. Such a determination could have opened the way for the Town Council to assert more control over the redevelopment, including an alternative to property taxes known as a PILOT agreement that could have resulted in larger payments to the town.
Verona’s planner, Jason Kasler, submitted a report to the Planning Board asserting that the Spectrum 360 property met two of the eight criteria that underlie the area in need of redevelopment determination. His report found fault with the buildings, which had been a Hoffman-LaRoche office before being turned into a school, and it asserted that there was a lack of proper utilization of the property because it had an improvement-to-land ratio of less than 2:1.
Some members of the Planning Board were skeptical of those conclusions, as were several members of the large audience that turned out for the meeting. During the public comment portion of the meeting, Larry Bovich, an Afterglow area resident who is also an engineer, said that the buildings were in good condition and that their windows and ventilation met current design standards. John Denton, another Afterglow area resident who had served on Verona’s Board of Adjustment for many years, pressed Kasler on the source for his assertion of the 2:1 ratio. Kasler could not cite any case law on it, only a website once used by planners that is now defunct. Afterglow area residents had previously opposed an expansion of The Children’s Institute.
In the end, Planning Board members Jennifer Critchley, Melissa Collins, Jessica Pearson, and Board Chairman Larry Lonergan voted against the area in need of redevelopment finding. Member James Kirby and the town government’s representatives to the board, Steven Neale and Mayor Kevin Ryan, voted in favor.
The Planning Board vote is the first step in what will likely be a long process for the Spectrum360 site, and the others now being eyed for affordable housing. Spectrum360 was one of four so-called intervenor properties that had been the subject of discussion with Verona authorities. At its October 1, 2018 meeting the Town Council approved the settlement on that property and also approved a concept plan for the former Poekel Travel Bureau site near the Verona Community Center for a small mixed-use development with stores and 46 rental units, eight of which would be for affordable housing. There has been no settlement on the other two intervenor properties, but the Council approved an ordinance in December to buy the former Cameco property and it is seeking a developer to turn it into low-density property entirely for affordable housing.
The Cameco development–roughly 50 units–combined with the Poekel and Spectrum360 properties and existing units at the Hillwood Terrace building now used as senior citizens housing, should get Verona to the 239 affordable housing units that are likely to be ordered by Essex County Superior Court. Since former Gov. Chris Christie abandoned the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) and New Jersey’s state legislature failed to create a replacement, affordable housing quotas have been left to county superior courts to establish. But the courts have been slow to act, leaving municipal governments across the state to guess at what their obligations might be. Verona did not put an affordable housing requirement in the 2015 redevelopment plan for the Annin Flag factory because it believed at the time that it had fulfilled its quota.
You can watch the Planning Board meeting through the township’s YouTube page.