Conversations and legal battles about the future of the 4.1 acre property Buck Woods, owned by JSM @ Highland Park LLC, and located between South Fifth and South Seventh avenues (at the southern end of South Sixth Avenue) have been going on and going nowhere for the past decade. Finally this summer – 17 years after Jack Morris purchased the property from Dorothy Buck – Highland Park officials and the developer seem to be making progress on plans for the site. Its development has been bound up in complex controversies over affordable housing obligation, open space, density, tree removal, and site cleanup.
At a meeting on September 19, dubbed an “Information Forum regarding Buck Woods Site,” the Municipal Attorney Edwin Schmierer, led the discussion with approximately 20 neighboring residents about a very preliminary and unofficial concept plan for developing the site. The developer is considering a project consisting of two five-story buildings that would contain 144 one- and two- bedroom apartment homes. Twenty of those units would be rental affordable housing; 124 market units would be for-purchase condominiums, selling in the $350,000 to $400,000 price range.
The construction would be clustered on the site closer to existing development and 50 percent of the property would be preserved as open space. Environmental clean up will be done on the entire property, but town officials hope that the environmental clean up involving tree removal would be concentrated in the area closest to South Sixth Avenue, where the two buildings are being proposed. To develop the site as multi-family residential apartment homes, the town would have to pass a new zoning ordinance that would allow the change in use from single family residential to multi-family residential.
The land is zoned for single-family homes on lots no smaller than 5,000 square feet or about a quarter of an acre. Two prior proposals for gated single family housing projects from Mr. Morris failed to get approval, because of environmental concerns over developing the entire site.
The developer initially thought that to do an effective testing for contamination, he would have to remove hundreds of trees throughout the entire 4.5 acre site. The compromise between the Highland Park officials and the developer would be that only up to 79 trees may be removed within a 50 foot swath of land on the property.
The borough council explored purchasing the property, said Municipal Attorney Ed Schmierer. “But due to environmental concerns, open space acquisition funds were not available, and Highland Park did not want to inherit an environmental clean-up obligation.”
At the September 19th information session, Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler noted that “we have a very litigious property owner who has been suing us for 10 years…. the latest was because we wouldn’t let him chop down all the trees….”
Residents over the years also have voiced the concern about the impact of new residential construction on the school district. The developer submitted a report based on a Rutgers demographic study showing that 144 two- bedroom apartments would generate about 20 or so additional children in the Highland Park school system. For a variety of reasons (charter schools, nationwide decline in the size of the school-age population), the schools in Highland Park have the ability to accommodate some new students. In the past, residents have disputed the validity of the Rutgers Study and the modest projected increases in school children that would be generated from these one- and two-bedroom apartment homes.
The apartment homes that would be sold would generate property tax revenue, 60 percent of which is allocated for the schools. Even though some have talked about imposing a payment in lieu of tax payment to fund additional school children in the system, the property has not been declared a Redevelopment Zone, and therefore, the 144 units would be treated like any other property in Highland Park, and property taxes will have to be paid.
The next step would be that the developer has to submit an official concept plan that ultimately would require the town’s willingness to rezone the site to accommodate multi-family development. Subsequent meetings before the planning board and borough council would provide the opportunity for residents to voice their concerns.
“The reality of the situation is that the land is privately owned and the owner is pursuing his right to develop the land. Our goal is to work closely with him to get the plans to fit the vision of the community,” said the mayor.