Letter to the Editor: Buck’s Woods Petition Reflects Significant Community Concerns

To the Editor of the Highland Park Planet:

I respectfully disagree with Matt Hersh, my neighbor just a few blocks down at Felton Ave, and a fellow trustee at the Highland Park Educational Foundation. So before we duke it out over this Buck’s Woods issue, a plug for HPEF Casino Night on May 11, 6:30-10:30 PM. (http://www.hpefnj.org/2019-spring-fundraiser.html) It will be a fun evening for a good cause! No argument on that!

As the primary author of the “Buck Woods” petition, I disagree with Matt’s contention that it “distorts Highland Park’s Bucks Woods situation.” Far from being a “distortion,” it’s an accurate reflection of the concerns and sentiments of my many neighbors affected by this drastic zoning change. If you walk the streets of 5th, 6th, and 7th Ave’s, you would be hard pressed to find anyone jumping with joy over the proposed zoning plan. This petition was several weeks in the making, and went through many drafts based on inputs and suggestions from my neighbors as well as other respected members of the community. 

As to Matt’s contention that this petition is “almost absolving the developer,” this was neither the intent nor the substance of the petition. Matt correctly outlined the major role the developer has played in this unfortunate saga over the years. But what Matt did not elaborate upon was the role that our borough government played in this fiasco. By his own admission, it was the town’s decision many years ago that kept the developer from building “a few dozen homes as part of a gated community in the 1990s.” More importantly, it was our town administrator’s more recent failures to meet the COAH filing deadlines that subjected our town to multiple “builder’s remedy” lawsuits; the Buck Woods lawsuit was only one of many. Intriguingly, of all the “builder’s remedy” developments in town, the Buck Woods plan is the only one to turn a preexisting SFR zoning upside down to build 4 ½ story apartment high rises!  As to why the “environmental concerns” that killed the deal in the ’90s no longer apply now, and to an even bigger building project… well, that’s just beyond me.  

The town was also disturbingly non-transparent and unforthcoming in communicating this drastic rezoning to my neighborhood. Various public officials presented this zoning change as being forced upon by the courts. In actuality, it is an agreement negotiated by the “borough’s consultants” to expediently resolve the town’s affordable housing obligations. Furthermore, the town communicated this drastic change in the most ineffective way possible: by publishing a notice in a newspaper, which no one saw, thereby depriving our right “to file written objections to the settlement.” As per July 10, 2018 Council Meeting minutes:

“Meanwhile, during the time that residents with property adjacent to the woods were voicing their concern to the Mayor and Council, the Borough’s consultants negotiated an agreement during a fairness hearing on May 31st.The fairness refers to fair housing. According to a June 20th document from Superior Court, Highland Park has resolved its affordable housing obligations in part by adopting “overlay” zoning permitting 75 dwelling units on the JSM property. According to this court document, the Borough “provided proper and public and actual notice of the fairness hearing” with a deadline of May 7th for any member of the public to file written objections to the settlement and that no such objections were received. She asked how that notice as delivered as she never saw any such thing. Borough Attorney Schmierer noted that it was published in a general circulation newspaper, The Home News Tribune. [My neighbor] noted that it is 2018 and many people do not read the newspaper. Borough Attorney Schmierer noted that the Court directed that they publish notice in the newspaper. [My neighbor] commented that it does not seem like a fair kind of notice considering that the residents living adjacent to Buck Woods have always been told that they would be kept in the loop.

Matt also incorrectly suggests my petition supports “the notion that the Borough is somehow actively perpetuating segregative development.” NOWHERE in the petition did I, or those who contributed to its drafting, make this sort of accusation. Personally, I believe our town’s public officials are all well-meaning and honorable people, and they are certainly not intending to be racists or segregationists.

Having said that, I want to call out the familiar sentiment when it comes to undesirable and disruptive zoning changes: Not in my backyard. Now, I don’t claim to be more virtuous or altruistic than anyone else in this matter. But Matt accuses us putting “personal agenda” before the welfare of the town. Come on, now, Matt, would you still sing the same tune if this was your backyard? Is my neighborhood the designated sacrificial goat for the previous “sins” of our government?  Instead of distributing the affordable housing units in an even manner as mandated by the Mount Laurel Doctrine, this town has long concentrated the neighborhood around South 7th Ave with the highest density of affordable housing and apartments in town. Is it any wonder then that many of the longtime residents here feel that they are again getting the short end of the stick?  Furthermore, this petition is far from being a “not in my backyard” petition. It’s instead a “build in my backyard but please be a little considerate” petition.  To see that it is arousing such sanctimonious moral indignation –especially when it’s not your backyard– is, well… a little hypocritical; wouldn’t you say?

We live in a highly polarized political climate. As this Buck Woods issue shows, this divisiveness is not just a national issue, but a local issue as well.  And if we want to make our country better, we have to begin right here, in our town.  To all readers, I urge you to read the petition in its entirety (https://tinyURL.com/BuckWoods). Then you can decide for yourself whether the concerns expressed are reasonable and the requests are sufficiently modest to be feasible.  If you agree, then please sign it. If you don’t, we are all still neighbors and friends in our wonderfully diverse small town.

Thank you for your time and your effort in understanding both sides of this issue.

Hayden Hsiung

Sth 5th Ave.

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