After a rowdy planning board meeting last week, the Manchester Township Council tabled further action on the controversial plan to redevelop the Heritage Minerals site currently owned by Hovsons, Inc. into a “new city in the pines.”
This week’s council meeting saw township officials attempt to allay the concerns of residents related to the massive project, despite the council not taking any action on an ordinance related to the project Monday night.
Mayor Palmer began by claiming that despite the redevelopment plan giving Hovsons permission to build 6543 homes on the site, that number might not necessarily be the final amount of housing units constructed.
“If we approve that, they now can go to the state DOT, the state Department of Environmental Protection and present their plan to them,” the mayor said. Palmer claims that state officials would potentially shave the number of homes down – even if the council gave initial approval for all 6543 – in order for those agencies to give approval for CAFRA / Pinelands and road connection.
Mayor Palmer was doubtful that 6543 would reflect the final number after Hovsons got through the other agencies, with Palmer not ruling out that the project could be held up by state or county authorities.
The mayor further added that after obtaining the necessary approvals from outside agencies, the developer and township could then enter into a redevelopment agreement, which would contractually finalize the specifics of the plan. Mr. Palmer maintains that the number is tentative until finalized in such an agreement. Additionally, the township will move to have the project broken up into phases rather than being built all at once, according to Palmer.
Hovsons Already Has Approval For 2400 Age-Restricted Homes
As a result of a 2004 settlement agreement, the developer already has approval to build 2400 age-restricted homes, just about a third of what the redevelopment plan calls for. “They could do that tomorrow,” Palmer said. Mayor Palmer emphasized that the settlement agreement is not necessarily set in stone, and can be modified if all parties were to consent to such changes.
“If we just do another age-restricted community, that will help us in the short term – absolutely it will,” Palmer said, citing that age-restricted homes will contribute money to the schools without burdening them with additional students. But Mayor Palmer claims that over the long term it could end up doing more harm than good if just age-restricted homes were to be built on the site.
But the mayor said that if another age-restricted community were to be built, the township could run the risk of becoming a “no-aid” district under the current state aid formula, meaning that the 14% of the Manchester school budget that is paid for by the state could potentially dry up, which he says guided the decision of township officials to pursue the current redevelopment plan as presented to the planning board by township professionals.
Mayor Palmer claims that under the planned scheme for redevelopment, the mix of commercial, age-restricted and non age-restricted residential properties would avoid those school funding issues, preventing a potential loss of state aid dollars.
Residents Speak Out Against Redevelopment Plan
Despite the mayor’s assurances, many Manchester residents took time to vocalize their opposition to the project and redevelopment plan.
Essentially their of the residents boiled down into the following areas of concern:
- Route 37 and Route 70 do not have enough capacity to support the additional traffic the development will create, with Joint Base MDL traffic already creating delays.
- A resident said there are “hundreds of empty homes” in existing developments, questioning the need for additional housing due to a perceived lack of demand.
- Others were concerned that the project would change the character of Manchester into an urban area, with some saying they moved down from northern New Jersey and appreciate the serenity of the Pinelands.
- A citizen commented that they don’t want Manchester to “turn into Lakewood,” citing traffic issues and Lakewood’s rapid growth.
- One speaker was extremely concerned about the impact to the Kirkwood-Cohanesy aquifer, which sits below the township and is a critical component of the Pine Barrens ecosystem.
- A resident that said she had experience in real estate expressed concern that additional residential development will increase the tax burden for additional schools and government services, such as police, fire and first aid.
- A citizen questioned the need for additional commercial space when they claim that the township already has a large amount of vacant commercial space.
Environmentalists Aren’t Buying Palmer’s Explanation
In an email to Ocean County Politics, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance‘s Theresa Lettman questioned the explanation offered by Mayor Palmer regarding the project, which could radically change the face of Manchester Township if approved.
“He didn’t explain why he thought that they weren’t going to build 6,543 [homes], Lettman charged. “How can Mayor Palmer know what Hovsons is going to do?” she questioned.
“The land use ordinance, they want to act on, gives the developer the right to build that many. But it’s not about what Hovsons will or won’t build, it should only be about what Manchester residents want.”
In response to Palmer’s point regarding the need for more development to prevent tax increases or a loss of state aid for schools Ms. Lettman said “No town wins a ratables race,” and that the thousands of new homes would place an additional burden on the township’s school system and municipal services, with current residents inevitably being forced to pick up the tab through future tax increases, environmental concerns aside.
“At one point Monday night he said he doesn’t now have enough information, but the actions of the town indicated they were moving ahead,” continued Lettman.
“How many times has an ordinance been passed in such a short amount of time? The Township met behind closed doors for 8 months and then wanted to pass it in only 14 days. If there isn’t enough information don’t move ahead so quickly.”
Sierra Club: Manchester Redevelopment Plan Is A “Monster”
Also reacting to the Manchester project was the New Jersey Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel, who was relieved that the council did not take action this week, citing public pressure.
“This proposal is a monster and each time it comes back it gets bigger and bigger and gobbles up more land, the president of the state’s Sierra Club chapter declared.
“This city in the Pines would add about 16,500 new residents to an area that’s already seen too much development. By the time the project is complete we would have a city bigger than New Brunswick or Perth Amboy right in the middle of the Pinelands.”
“We have slowed down Manchester officials from rubberstamping a terrible project, which will give people more time to organize and fight it. This is land should be preserved because of its environmental integrity and importance to the drinking water for millions of people. The public must come out to protect the Pinelands and oppose this environmentally destructive project.”
The Manchester Township Planning Board will be taking further action on the project at their June 6th, 2016 meeting.