Upcoming Meetings Are Pivotal in the Buck’s Woods Development Saga

For nearly 20 years, Highland Park residents have been taking a challenging and frustrating legal journey into the woods – Buck’s Woods.

The next stop on this journey concerning the future development of Buck’s Woods will be a community meeting at Council Chambers, Borough Hall, Tuesday, April 9, 7 p.m.  The Borough Council will be leading a discussion of the proposed court-ordered zoning overlay ordinance for the Buck Woods property that will allow for the development of 75 units of multi-family housing. The goal is to get development that respects the style and scale of the existing neighborhood residences, prevents the project from overwhelming the neighborhood with traffic, and fulfills the court-mandated affordable housing requirement for Highland Park.

According to the Borough attorney, the approval of an overlay-zoning plan is a critical component of the Borough’s affordable housing settlement agreement. On June 14, the court will rule on whether the Borough’s plan works to satisfy the town’s affordable housing mandate. Before the court date, the plan must gain planning board approval (discussion scheduled for Thursday, April 11) followed by a formal hearing and approval at the council meeting May 7.

Highland Park has been engaged in affordable housing litigation for many years, and this settlement, according to Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, will put an end to years of litigation and will increase Highland Park’s affordable housing stock.

Technically, Buck Woods’s is no longer a woods. The developer two weeks ago took down 177 trees – supposedly to facilitate environmental testing. This effort is in connection to the developer’s (JSM) desire to build housing on the site – an effort that has developed into a major community battle with complex twists and turns of legal maneuvering.

According to the residents, the debris from the tree removal remains, nothing has been touched since March 19, and residents have received no information about what “testing” or “remediation” will take place on the site, or when it will happen. According to Borough regulations, the trees have to be replaced – but again a timeline for such action is undetermined.

The saga of Buck’s Woods began once upon a time in the year 2000, when several residents (including Mayor Brill Mittler—long before she became an elected official—attended a council meeting to protest a development plan for the Buck’s Woods site. Buck’s Woods, a 4.1-acre property owned by JSM at Highland Park LLC., is located between South Fifth and South Seventh avenues, at the southern end of South Sixth Avenue, about a half-block from Bartle Elementary School.

The original development proposal was for 35 single-family luxury homes in a gated community – right next to the town’s affordable housing development. Even though the land is zoned for single-family housing, the residents felt that the type of development proposed was incongruous and insensitive to the neighborhood. From there, the Buck Woods action just got more convoluted with the key elements being density (at one time the developer proposed 200 units), HP’s affordable housing obligation, environmental cleanup, and even the development of the Sunoco site on Second Avenue (also owned by JSM). 

The Buck’s Woods community activists now are urging residents to mark their calendars and attend the April 9 Borough Council discussion, the April 11 Planning Board meeting, and the May 7 Borough Council meeting.

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