Highlands Re-Development: Pros & Cons

HIGHLANDS – There were pros and cons, questions and statements, and lots of opinions on everything from the impact of cannabis businesses in the borough to the impact of code enforcement on cleaning up properties last night as the Mayor and Council held an information meeting on the proposed Area of Redevelopment for Bay Avenue to Gravelly Point and some attached areas along the way.

The governing body is on target for its tentative timeline for the proposed Bay Avenue Area of Development and is expected to approve the plan at its Sept. 15 council meeting with an anticipated recommendation for the action from the Land Use Board at its Sept. 2. meeting.

The Area in Need of Redevelopment Study for the Central Business District was prepared last month for the borough’s land use board by Phillips Preiss Grygiel Leheny Hughes LLC Planning and Real Estate Consultants of Hoboken, with Professional Planner Paul Grygiel present at the meeting to answer questions and explain the procedures that will follow.

The Land Use Board held its own public hearing on the proposal earlier this month, but because of the lateness of the meeting and members’ desires to review opinions expressed at the meeting, they failed to adopt any resolution adopting the Study Area proposal.

That action is expected to favor continuing with the plan, Mayor Carolyn Broullon said prior to the meeting; if that board takes action at its Sept. 2 meeting as expected, it appears the governing body will follow their recommendation at their Sept. 15 meeting and authorize the preparation of a Redevelopment Plan for the area.

That plan will then be presented to the Land Use Board for its review and a resolution recommending adoption of the Plan developed by the governing body with any recommendations. If that action takes place in October or November as expected the Council will then introduce a Redevelopment Ordinance that will be the first step in putting the plan in place.

Paul Grygiel, representing the firm, outlined the process last night, and gave a broad overview of the impact before answering questions from the approximate fewer than two dozen persons in attendance at the meeting at the Community Center.

Both the planner and the mayor made it clear the governing body is only considering the plan as non-condemnation, meaning there would be no eminent domain, affected property owners would have the ability to use payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to spur development of property, and both state and asset-based financing would be available.

Grygiel explained properties in the area would have to meet specific state mandated criteria in order to be consider an area in need of redevelopment, and 120 properties out of the approximate 155 in the area met at least one of the criterion. Broullon also said however, it appears to be the consensus of the governing body that all buildings within the area would be included for the benefits of the program, rather than have it offer assistance in a haphazard manner.

The planner’ study include surveys of land uses, property conditions, occupancy and ownership status, review of tax maps and tax records, zoning, health, property maintenance and related violations, as well as development applications and approvals, building and demolition permit activity, and police activity logs. The review also include deed records, a review of the existing zoning ordinance and the Borough’s Master Plan.

The report describes existing conditions and locational context ,applicable zoning and master plan recommendations other planning efforts. The full report identifies each specific property in the redevelopment area along with what criteria it met or did not meet in order to be considered, creating the 122 properties that were deemed to meet at least one of the criteria.

But residents attending the meeting appeared to fear, and did not get a firm answer, on whether eminent domain could be changed by a future governing body and condemnation of properties or change of use could be mandated. Residents also said redevelopment is not the primary problem, flooding is, and until that is addressed, there will still always be the elephant in the room.

Broullon kept the 90 minute public hearing on target, stopping resident from speaking on the

cannabis approval code recently adopted by the borough in contrast to the majority of

municipalities across the state who withheld approval until all the laws governing cannabis were released.

Unlike Council meetings, there was no three minute limit, however, as council heard both pros and cons of the proposal, with several residents saying regardless of the benefits of the program, it does not address the primary problem in the borough, namely flooding.

Former Councilman Chris Francy called it “a dilemma” and questioned how a blend of residential and business uses can be accommodated if the plan is to increase business and allow residences remain, pointing out there are more residential units in the subject area than there are businesses. Michele Diebold recalled earlier years in her lifetime in the borough when the business area and beyond flourished with a theater, bowling alley, amusement area, parks, restaurants and bars.

Steve Solos, a businessman in the district, questioned the possibility of eminent domain in the future, regardless of what this council does now, and added if “you don’t think it can happen I’ve got a bridge to sell…”

Charles LaRue, opposing an earlier speaker who questioned why stricter code enforcement could not achieve the benefits of better kept properties, termed the code enforcement program “phenomenal,” an opinion supported by Broullon who said the code enforcement office issues numerous violations with the result of recently improved properties. LaRue added increased business development would increase land value for everyone.

John Caruso, describing himself as both a builder and a development, said people never like change, but the borough needs businesses for ratables. He asked people to wait and see, “things will get nicer, you’ll want to stay. Reserve decision until you get the data, this is really really good.” While Caruso said he owns several properties in the area, they are apparently listed under a company name since his name does not appear as owner of any of the properties included in the study.

Solos told the governing body they are failing to approach the idea of changing Highlands in the proper manner, saying “Economic growth should precede economic development.”


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