Chatham’s location and great schools naturally attract real estate developers looking to make a fortune on new apartment projects. At one time, they had to follow zoning rules, intended to keep out huge towers that would clog up our streets and swamp our schools, police, etc.
Those protections began to erode in the 2000s, when Chatham began to relax zoning standards, in hopes of attracting taxable developments. Around 2016, our then Mayor & Council discovered a state “redevelopment” law that seemed to promise a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to any town willing to waive normal zoning rules, allowing developers to build big projects that could be tax “rateables.”
Of course, there was a catch: Such projects usually aren’t ratable at all. They are eligible for fabulous property tax breaks and other goodies that shift most of the costs – and risks – to us taxpayers.
In their naive quest for easy money, our then Mayor & Council led us into a Plan to build a big apartment project in Post Office Plaza – behind the Main Street Post Office. That POP Plan will clog our streets with hundreds more cars and trucks – without any real benefit to Chatham.
It all started with a few small steps. We’re simply investigating possibilities, the Mayor & Council told themselves. We can stop at any time.
But as usual, each small step makes it harder to stop. At some point, there is no way out. It happens so gradually that people don’t wake up until it’s too late.
Almost nobody in Chatham woke up until November 14, 2019, when the Council’s handpicked developer unveiled a big, horrible design for Post Office Plaza. It triggered public outrage.
When our current Mayor took office in January 2020, he tossed that ridiculous design off the table. But he did not scrap the POP Redevelopment Plan itself. He vowed only to consider a range of options and to hold several Town Hall meetings before doing anything.
The Mayor did not keep that promise. At the June 28, 2021 Council meeting, he suddenly announced a new design proposal for POP.
The Mayor was vague about that new proposal. He led residents to believe that other options were still possible and would be discussed at future Town Hall meetings.
In reality, the Mayor had already signed a June 14 contract in an affordable housing lawsuit. He had signed that contract without having held a single Town Hall – or even having resumed in-person Council meetings after Covid.
What’s more, in that contract the Mayor had agreed, in effect, to make the POP project at least 100 rental apartments, without having considered how that project would affect Chatham. To help get that result, he’d promised to change the Plan by January 1, 2022 and to try to get the final agreement signed by June 1, 2022, which would permanently lock Chatham into a deal nobody had seen yet.
The only reason that deal came to light is one smart Chatham lady spotted a mysterious notice on the Borough website, and began asking questions. Residents flocked to the next Council meeting with questions the Mayor couldn’t – or wouldn’t – answer.
The POP project will displace some 18 Chatham families of modest means who live there now, to make room for 15-17 lucky North Jersey housing lottery winners of modest means. It will make a rich developer even richer. But for Chatham there’s no reason to expect anything but more traffic, higher costs, and a lower quality of life.
Chatham residents are in the dark. And the clock is ticking.
It’s time to wake up.
Urge our Mayor to find a better way to satisfy our obligations under the June 14 agreement – such as subsidizing apartments on Main Street or converting a vacant office building for residential use – before it’s too late.