It was standing-room only at a Planning Board meeting Monday night when residents spoke out against a proposal to redevelop several vacant and underutilized parcels of property.
Town Planner John Szabo and Mayor Chris Vergano, a member of the Planning Board, developed the plan. It involves changing the township’s Master Plan to allow mixed-use properties, with a shared emphasis on commercial and rental properties, to be developed in town.
Some residents said they do not like the idea of putting residential units behind commercial ones on the State Farm property or building more rental units on Route 23.
“If you build on Route 23 and on the State Farm property it’s like opening a Pandora’s box,” said Robin Steinberg. “Doing that would affect both sides of the corridor. I ask, does Wayne really need more rental properties? Do we need the potential for more students in our already over-crowded schools? Wayne needs viable, sustainable businesses, not more rental properties.”
Arthur Linfante of Value Research Group LLC, a real estate analytical and consulting group that the township works with, said states compete with one another for commercial properties. That has caused municipalities to re-examine how they attract businesses.
“[Business owners] they’re looking for sustainable development,” Linfante said. “They’re also looking for connectivity. They’re looking for a live-work-and-play type of environment. It does change what we’re used to in our suburban communities.”
Residents are concerned that more low-income housing would also be built.
Vergano was quick to shoot down accusations that the plan is politically based or would add Section Eight housing units to the town, creating a more urban environment. He said the plan has been worked on for the past six months.
The state Council on Affordable Housing is requiring the township have 394 more housing units for its third-round of affordable housing requirements.
COAH is a state agency that requires municipalities to have a certain number of affordably-priced housing units available for low-income families.
The town must have one affordable-priced unit for every five regularly-priced units and another affordable-priced unit for every 16 jobs created. There are 571 affordable-priced units in Wayne, Vergano said.
The township would build 185 units for low-income families to repair 23 units. The units would be located in the proposed Transit Hub development in the Mountainview Section of town off of Route 23 South.
The remaining units would be located in the Summer Hills senior citizen housing development and another 20 in already-exiting group homes. Ten percent of the units in the redevelopment plan would be set aside to fulfill the requirement.
The township already received credit for more than 1,100 units as required by COAH. Some of those housing credits were sold to nearby municipalities, which is allowed under COAH rules.
Several residents said that officials should focus on bringing in more businesses, rather than housing units, to Wayne.
“I believe we need to take a stand on this issue. If we want to spend our money and we want our politicians to do something, instead of looking at high-density housing they should find a way to bring in more businesses,” Irene Rubin said.
The plan involves rezoning the areas those properties are located in, most notably the former State Farm property, an undeveloped 10-acre lot on Route 23, the Wayne Hills Mall property, and the former Toshiba property and another next to it on Totowa Road. The owners of those properties pay about $730,000 annually in property taxes.
“We don’t own any of these properties. We don’t own the Wayne Hills Mall,” Vergano said. “We have no intention of using Eminent Domain to acquire these properties.”
Vergano wants those properties to be redeveloped so their assessed value and taxes increase, which would help stabilize the municipalities’ decreasing tax base.
“The ratable base is shrinking. Last year we lost $21 million in our ratable base. This year it will be even worse,” Vergano said. “We decided to look at sites [whose owners] are their share of taxes.”
Szabo previously said that he wants to use business and residential units together as a way of creating more “walkable communities” with mass transit hubs for young professionals.
“This is the Tea Party working against the township. I would put the people above the party any day,” Vergano said. “That’s what this is all about ladies and gentlemen. It’s a disgrace.”
Some residents said the plan should be devoid of politics.
“This isn’t about being a Republican, a Democrat, or a member of the Tea Party, this is about bringing businesses back to the community,” Virginia Toms said.
Residents blasted Szabo and Vergano for allegedly rushing the plan through the municipal bureaucracy and for other flaws they believe the plan contains.
Vergano said that is not true.
Szabo will present a plan to the Planning Board in October who will vote on the proposed changes. Any proposed changes to the zoning ordinances and Master Plan would go before the Town Council. The council would vote on introducing them, then, if they are introduced, vote on them a second time for approval. Twenty days later the changes would go into effect as law.
“Nothing is happening tonight where there is going to be shovel in the ground tomorrow,” Vergano said. “It is not a short-term process. It is a long-term process.”