Letter to the Editor: Buck’s Woods Petition Puts Personal Agenda Before Welfare of Town

There’s a petition out there that really distorts Highland Park’s Buck’s Woods situation, almost absolving the developer in favor of a few personal agenda. It’s a shame because there is an effort to finally end the developer’s decades-long litigation against the town by proposing to change the zoning from single-family lots to building two, 4-story rental buildings, smaller than two similarly-sized buildings in the immediate area.

The petition is being used to call for lower-scale development and/or that any development there would advance segregative development. I don’t recommend you sign it because both claims are somewhat dubious because neither argument focuses on the actions of the developer of this private property.

This site has been a bone of contention for years for the Borough as the developer, Edgewood Properties, headed up by Jack Morris, HP Native, Chair of RWJBarnabas Health, and developer of the Hard Rock Casino in AC, has tried to shoehorn development in there, much to the concern of neighbors on South 5th and South 7th.

The site is currently zoned for roughly 40 single-family homes, 25 feet wide and 143 feet deep, reflective of the zoning in the surrounding neighborhoods. There are no streets through the site and the only access currently is from South Sixth Ave.

Morris was denied an application to build a few dozen homes as part of a gated community in the 1990s due to a number of considerations, including environmental concerns there related to steep slopes, erosion, and increased runoff. The subsequent details are murky (to me) but since then he’s been periodically fighting the Borough (to a great expense related to our little $12M municipal budget) to adjust the zoning to build there. For a while, there was an effort from the Borough to purchase the property to preserve it, but Morris can get much more out of that site if it’s developed.

A few years ago, he attempted to latch on to Fair Share Housing’s COAH litigation that assures that towns live up to their affordable housing obligations. What Fair Share does is good and noble. What Morris did, however, was not. He claimed that the borough needed his proposal to shoehorn ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY apartments in Buck’s Woods in order to meet our affordable housing obligation. We didn’t, of course, and we fought it, but it still cost the Borough a ton of money. Chump change for this developer.

Related, Morris’ attorney is now Doug Wolfson, a former Middlesex County judge who had been ruling on these issues for 20 years. So much for impartiality. I’ve linked to an article where South Brunswick objected to Wolfson’s judgement because of his ties to the developer.

The Borough has been working to amend the zoning there. The current proposal is to allow for 75 rentals in two buildings (with an affordable component included), close to the end of South 6th, leaving much of the site undeveloped.

Also of note, Edgewood Properties has a contract on the Sunoco station in town, and is holding that site hostage for who knows how long while the Borough makes progress on redeveloping key areas downtown.

The whole thing is very upsetting, and particularly because Buck’s Woods, on a census map, indicates a bright line between higher- and lower-income residents. 

So this site was never developed. It was always owned by the Buck family until the heirs sold it to Morris. This is an important point because one of the developers lawsuits against the Borough asks for the town—your taxpayer dollars—to clean it up to the tune of many millions of dollars. However, since the site was never publicly owned, the Borough is also fighting that suit.

Since the site has been fallow it’s completely appropriate for neighbors to be concerned about what’s going there, particularly after decades of developer-driven teased plans and failed applications. And yet, if it developed properly, it could represent a mixed-income neighborhood.

What’s a shame is that this petition is being perpetuated by folks who either a) want no development on private property when the Borough has been battling for years and is finally in a place to put all this litigation to an end and b) want to perpetuate the notion that the Borough is somehow actively perpetuating segregative development. Neither is accurate.

Matthew Hersh, Felton Avenue 

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