A developer who happens to also be a Long Valley resident says it’s time to revitalize the downtown section of town by building a community center, town homes, single-family homes and retail space.
His neighbors, well, some of them don’t agree.
Ray Rice, representing Jade Land Corporation, brought a concept plan to the Washington Township Committee during its monthly work session Wednesday night to show what he believed a true town center could look like.
A month after Rice presented his outline to the planning board,the developer and 30-year resident of Washington Township told the governing body and an audience of close to 30 people he envisioned a 30,000-square foot community center within walking distance of the Long Valley Middle School.
The community center would include a pool, all-purpose rooms and other amenities to draw in residents, Rice said. The building would be a turn-key operation and handled by a third party, according to Mayor Ken Short. The cost of the building would run about $3 million, Rice said, and any additional costs would be offset by the development of housing, which Rice introduced to the committee.
A community center would “make the community more desirable and bring benefits to the town,” Rice said. “It would also create a good interaction with the school.”
Beyond the proposed community center, on a road that would wind its way around the southwestern portion of the middle school’s property, a group of town homes and single-family residences would occupy currently unused land, approaching the former Scott Farm property, which was sold to an investor three years ago. The single-family homes would be on lots of approximately 5,000-square-feet each.
The development of the homes would require the implementation of what Rice is calling the “lower bypass,” or decades-old idea initially designed to reroute excess traffic around the center of Long Valley. The bypass, also known as the Schooley’s Mountain Safety Project, which would extend from Camp Washington Road down the mountain and around the middle school, had any and all funding halted by the Morris County Freeholders a few years ago.
The homes would be serviced by the Washington Township Municipal Utilities Authority for its water and sewer needs. Natural gas would also be available.
The second phase of the project would be developed on the Swackhammer family’s property along Fairmount Road to the east. Here a 13,500-square-foot firehouse with six bays would be developed, along with approximately 6,000-square-feet of retail space and a 20-unit apartment building to fulfill requirements from the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH).
The third and final portion of the project would be slightly north of the other two land developments on Schooley’s Mountain Road. The Ballentine building at 20 Schooley’s Mountain Road, currently housing the weekly Long Valley Green Market and owned by the Harrington family, would be completely reconstructed (knocked down and built back up) into 20 town homes, nine of which would meet COAH requirements, Rice said.
Town planner David Banisch said the municipality estimates, under a new mandate expected to be implemented this year, some 45 residences in Washington Township will need to become COAH units, “give or take 10.”
“This proposal could bring spending power to our town,” Rice said. “Residents near the school would have close proximity to the downtown area. Thriving downtowns bring people together.”
Questions, Concerns, and a Bit of Chaos
Rice’s proposal had a few proponents Wednesday night, but residents came with questions and concerns more than anything, spending close to an hour at the microphone. Some questions were addressed, but because the presentation was for concept only, most went unanswered.
Harry Maroney expressed his concern for students and the school districts. “How do (middle school) students go from the school to the community center if there’s a heavily traveled bypass there?” Maroney asked. “Plus, if these homes are bringing in more kids, where are they going to school? Old Farmers, which is full? Or do they get shipped up the mountain to the schools with empty seats? Will we need more buses and have to pay for that?”
Washington Township Fire Chief and longtime resident Bob Drake also expressed his concerns, but from a fire and safety standpoint.
“When you build on this land, where’s all the water going to go?” Drake asked. “Fairview (Avenue) already floods when it rains. If you build townhomes at Ballentine, which backs up to Fairview, where’s the water going to go? And if you’re going to add more homes (by the middle school), how is the fire department going to help? We’re all volunteers. We have jobs during the day and only a few guys available.”
But it was resident Philip Berg, also a developer, who was most outspoken about the concept.
“This proposal would change the identity of why most of us moved here,” Berg began. “The firehouse would be in a dangerous location. We’d insult our own efforts by putting homes on land right against preserved farmland. Why would we consider 6,000-square-feet of retail space when we can’t fill current holes?
“On behalf of the sheep,” Berg said facetiously of the nearby Long Valley Shepherd Creamery, “How would they feel with fire horns blazing at all hours?”
“I think when communities aren’t growing, they’re stagnant,” Rice said in defense of the plan.
The community center had its backers, however, including former Washington Township Committeeman and School Board of Education representative Walt Cullen.
“When I moved here in 1980, I would have loved for my house to be the last piece of development,” he said. “But I know that can’t happen. I think the community center is necessary. I think this is a good project.”
Resident Jill Muniz also backed the center, saying she’d love to not have to go to other communities for certain activities like swimming or gatherings.
Long Way to Go
The concept plan, now formally introduced to the planning board and township committee, is only that. No application has been filed, but the proposal gives the town an opportunity to take next steps.
Because the land in the proposal is part of the Highlands Conformance area, the planning board can work with the state-run organization to come up with a “mini-master plan,” Banisch said. The board will work with the Highlands Commission to get approvals on which parcels of land can incur what kind of development.
That will then give the board an opportunity to create a “mini-master plan” for the area. Rice’s proposed developments will be heavily considered, but essentially the planning abilities will be up to the board.
“The properties that may come before the Board in the future will be considered for their development potential and viability in general but there will be no specific development decisions made unless and until a valid application is made by a developer,” said Planning Board chairman Lou Mont in an email to Patch. “If the Township Committee agrees that we should move forward to study the Town Center, we will schedule a number of regular, special and work sessions to do that. We do wish for the process to be transparent and would invite public comment throughout the process.”
The Washington Township Committee next meets on Monday, July 21 at 7:30 p.m.