A development plan that would bring 208 apartment units to the bottom of Kings Highway was declined by three members of the Township Committee Monday night.
The concept, brought forth to the township by Kings Highway, LLC and owners of USR Optonix – an industrial factory that once operated on the site in question – proposed an apartment complex mixing one, two, and three-bedroom units that was passed on to the governing body by the planning board after 18 months of review.
In order to move forward, the township committee would have to agree to either rezone or redevelop the site, as its current use is strictly for industrial zoning.
But committeemen Tracy Tobin, James LiaBraaten, and Donald Babb decided against that proposal. Mayor Ken Short and Vice Mayor Bill Roehrich did not vote, as both have conflicts of interest on the matter. Short has used Kings Highway, LLC attorney Michael Selvaggi for personal matters, and Roehrich owns property in close proximity to the site.
The issued isn’t dead, however, as the committee decided to move forward in the creation of a subcommittee that will work alongside Kings Highway, LLC to see if another solution can be made.
That working subcommittee will include one committeeman (Tobin), township planner David Banisch, one to two planning board members (to be determined), and representatives from Kings Highway, LLC. Members of the Highlands Commission and officials from Mansfield Township will be invited to attend as well, Tobin said.
The purpose of the subcommittee, Tobin said, will be to try and find a less intensive use for the property. “We still expect development, but what form it will take will be part of the process,” he said Tuesday.
“Maybe we can mix it up with apartments and townhouses, something that has a lower impact on the area,” Tobin said. “But we certainly can’t disallow everything on that site.”
Tobin said one of the sticking points on the issue for him was the traffic study provided by Kings Highway’s expert. “It just didn’t hold water for me,” he said. “It wasn’t believable.”
The traffic study said the addition of 208 apartment units in that area would not make a drastic increase in vehicle volume to the area of Rt. 57 and Kings Highway.
About 15 residents attended Monday night’s meeting, Tobin said, a much smaller turnout than a December meeting when more than 50 residents – all living in the Kings Highway area – attended to show their disapproval of the project. At that meeting, more than a dozen residents spoke to the committee with high emotion to express their concern.
Those residents were a small contingent of the group that signed an online petition, which netted nearly 300 e-signatures, fighting the proposed development.
Plan Wasn’t ‘Willy Nilly’
Michael Selvaggi, the attorney representing Kings Highway, LLC, said while the outcome isn’t what was hoped for, he looks forward to working with the subcommittee in an open-minded manner.
“(The decision) isn’t the way we wanted it,” he said Tuesday, “and it’s a bit frustrating, but we’ll continue to make the case that multi-family housing is the best (development) for that area.”
Selvaggi took issue with the idea that Kings Highway, LLC, and its hired experts came up with the apartment complex proposal out of thin air.
“It’s not like this whole thing was willy nilly,” he said. “It’s been much researched on our end and even further more by the planning board. We spent considerable time coming to these conclusions. We’re certainly willing to hear (from the subcommittee) counter arguments on a development that would be viable for that area. We hope the subcommittee will go in with an open mind.
“I think it behooves everyone to come up with a development for that area,” he said.
The lease for USR Optonix ends on Feb. 20, Selvaggi said. The company was providing $172,000 in a tax ratable to the township, making up for roughly 1.1-percent of the town’s overall revenue. If the apartment complex was approved, it would have provided more than $400,000 a year in property taxes to the township, Selvaggi said.
The subcommittee meetings will be advertised and open to the public, Tobin said. Meeting dates have not yet been made, but are expected to kick off in February.