Our Zoning Board is under pressure to waive 19 laws to allow a new owner to add a busy convenience store to the gas station at the most dangerous intersection on Main Street, making it even less pedestrian friendly.
The Board could vote as soon as this Thursday, and without your support there’s no telling how it might go.
Please come to the special public meeting at 7 pm, this Thursday, February 29, at Borough Hall, 54 Fairmount Avenue.
(Use the side entrance. Take the elevator to the upper level, Council Chambers.)*
*The author has chosen to abstain from participating in or voting on this issue in her capacity as an alternate member of the Historic Preservation Commission.
The dominant political party in Trenton is trying to rush through a state law that would trigger even more reckless overdevelopment, by overriding most local control of zoning and allowing big builders to gobble up almost every town, building many more huge, high-density apartment blocks – against your wishes and at your expense.
Only you can stop this calamity. So please, drop everything. Take a moment to tell your state senator and representative to “Vote no on bill A4/S50.”
Ever traveled through the intersection of Main Street & Hillside Avenue in Chatham Borough?*
Then you know those old streets are narrow and misaligned, making navigating the intersection confusing, chaotic, and dangerous.**
Knowing all that, our Zoning Board must nonetheless consider waiving a whole slew of our laws to allow the new Exxon owner to add a busy convenience store that would make that intersection even worse without doing any good for Chatham.
That vote could happen as soon as February 29, when the Zoning Board will hold a special 7 pm hearing on multiple variances the new Exxon owner needs to add that convenience store to the Main Street Exxon station.
What can you do about that? Plenty.
First, come join your neighbors and friends at the special 7 pm Zoning Board hearing on February 29 at Borough Hall, 54 Fairmount Avenue. (Use the side entrance and take the elevator to the upper level.)
Second, ask the Zoning Board the total number of additional cars and trucks that will cross our sidewalks to get in and out of the Exxon site each day, in a day, during current peak traffic hours AND during the extended service hours of the proposed store, from 6 to 8 am and from 6 to 11 pm, when the current service station garage is closed.
Ask them to consider what effect that additional sidewalk traffic could have on pedestrians and cyclists on our Main Street, an important concern under our Master Plan.
Ask the Applicant’s Professional Planner if he would support construction of a similar enterprise at a busy corner near his own home.
Can we stop the overdevelopment that is beginning to choke the roads of Chatham Borough, pollute our air, inflate our taxes, and even threaten to swamp our schools?
Yes, we can.
All we need to do is to hold our new Mayor & Council accountable for not selling us down the riveragain, as they did with the monstrosity at the corner of Watchung Avenue and River Road.
We can do that. You can help.
Tell the Mayor & Council not to make any more concessions to the would-be overdevelopers. Make them promise not to sign any more PILOT agreements, waiving the developer’s property taxes at the expense of the rest of us. Make them promise to do their due diligence and hold out for terms favorable to the Borough.
We need to start asking questions, demanding answers and promises, and holding our Mayor & Council accountable now, before they make any irreversible decisions.
Strong, sustained, public scrutiny and pressure can inspire and empower our elected representatives to stand firm in negotiations with tough real estate sharks, backed by teams of experts wielding state laws that give developers the upper hand.
Are you wondering why the Council would even consider another project at River Road, given the massive, 245-unit Ivy apartment project that just went up at the corner of River and Watchung?
As at the Ivy, the new developments will be out of the reach of most retirees, millennials, and young families, because almost all of the apartments will be offered at market rates, with monthly rents between $3,000 for one bedroom apartments, and $7,000 for three bedroom units. How many downsizers or young families can afford that?
Only 15% of the new apartments will be set aside for low and moderate income families. That means Chatham would have to accept 1,000 new units (a more than 30% increase in density) to get even 150 units toward our ever increasing affordable housing quota.
Chathamites won’t get first dibs on the affordable apartments, either. But Chatham taxpayers will suffer higher density, pollution, and lower quality of life. And that’s a best-case scenario, which the Mayor & Council could achieve only with deft negotiation.
If the Council doesn’t stand strong, but rather succumbs to the developer’s standard demand for a 30-year PILOT property tax exemption, that will mean higher taxes for everyone else and it will leave the Borough on the hook to meet increasing demands for municipal services.
Negotiated PILOT payments-in-lieu of taxes should help with those expenses, but it’s the Borough that will bear 100% of the risk that the revenue projections won’t pan out, as is happening at similar projects that have been reduced to offering discounts: https://www.woodmontstation.com/
If the statewide luxury apartment construction frenzy leads to a glut, causing the bubble to burst and rent rolls to plummet, it will be a disaster for Chatham Borough.
Of course, by then the developer will be long gone, and Borough taxpayers will be left holding the bag.
What about the nice public “amenities,” like the riverside trail our Mayor wants to see along the Passaic? It could happen.
Then again, once the Council adopts a redevelopment plan, the would-be developer will begin to chip away at the requirements, until there’s nothing left for the public, as happened with the monstrous 245-apartment Ivy project.
The lesson is clear: Our Mayor & Council should negotiate the best possible deal, and refuse to finance it with a PILOT tax break no matter how many sweet promises the developers make.
In short, while our Mayor & Council cannot prevent more development at River Road, they need not and must not sacrifice the long-term well-being of the Borough by waiving any more requirements or granting any PILOT agreements.
If a developer won’t build without a PILOT, that means it’s a bad deal and the Borough shouldn’t get involved.
This Monday night, January 8, the Borough will swear in our new Mayor, civic-minded second term Council member Carolyn Dempsey, and three new Council members, all hand-picked by the local Democrat party leaders with no opposition.
What can we expect of them? Plenty of ceremonies, concerts, and celebrations to be sure.
But behind the scenes, our new Mayor & Council will soon face serious challenges, and will need to make big decisions that will affect all of us for many years to come. Here are some important ones:
1. Post Office Plaza
This month marks the deadline for the Mayor & Council to either:
secure enough grant money to construct a 15-unit, 100% affordable apartment house at Post Office Plaza; or else
borrow whatever it takes to build that project – potentially $6 million or more – while continuing to seek grants, as agreed in 2022.
We should all thank former Mayor Thaddeus Kobylarz, then-Council members Len Resto and Frank Truilo, and Council member Irene Treloar for achieving that agreement. It’s a far better outcome than the 100+ rental unit, 85% luxury alternative the other Council members were pushing then, and a far, far better outcome than the 230-rental unit monstrosity the Harris administration was ready to go with in 2019. But now it’s time to get to work.
By the end of March, the Borough must break ground on the 15-unit project, and it must have a Certificate of Occupancy by March 2025, after which the Borough will serve both as the provider of municipal services and as landlord for the next 30 years.
The big, tax-exempt Ivy housing project on River Road should soon begin to help earn its keep by making payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, also known as PILOT payments. The Council will need every penny to pay for necessities, including new fire trucks, and luxuries like the Stanley Center.
At the same time, the Council will continue to face intense pressure to donate some funds to the joint public School District, based on the mistaken belief that PILOTs cheat the schools.
If the Council succumbs to that pressure, Borough taxpayers will bear more than our fair share of School District expenses, and the Council will need to borrow more money to fulfill its own responsibilities.
The Council would best serve its constituents by flatly denying those demands and reminding the School Board that the School District can and should make any appeal for more funding directly to the taxpayers, by putting on the ballot either a referendum or a second question as it did last November.
For the Council to make a deal directly with the School District, no matter the dollar amount or purpose, would be to cut the taxpayer out of the process. That would be unnecessary, inappropriate, and irresponsible unless taxpayers unequivocally consent to delegate that decision to the Council.
3. More development at River Road
As the Third Round of Affordable Housing obligations winds down, and the July 2025 start date for the Fourth Round nears, the Borough can expect a spate of applications to build multi-family apartment projects, no doubt including one at the Bradley lots on Main Street, the subject of a 2020 lawsuit against the Borough.
The Borough cannot allow all of that construction without sacrificing the small town charm that makes Chatham attractive. And yet, to refuse any of those proposals will be to take a chance on another expensive and risky tussle in court.
It seems the new administration is inclined to solve that problem by sacrificing the rest of River Road to a sea of 862 additional residences.
The rationale is that the Borough cannot prevent construction of more than 800 additional apartments there, so the Mayor & Council might as well try to negotiate for some control and a few public benefits by adopting another redevelopment plan.
That is a mirage. Sure, eager developers will promise to throw in a “free” jogging path along the Passaic River and maybe some extra help meeting our affordable housing quota. But in exchange they will expect the Council to grant them permission to build even bigger housing projects, and to waive all property taxes, which will reduce our tax base.
All other things being equal, deals like that will mean higher property taxes for the rest of us. In effect, Borough taxpayers will bear the cost of that “free” jogging path and a little affordable housing, and will face increasing municipal expenses with potentially inadequate funds.*
Before embarking on another big project, our new Mayor & Council should do their due diligence. At the very least, they should unleash their best experts to help them explore the many other ways the Borough could meet its affordable housing quota, including subsidizing the conversion of existing apartments from market rate to affordable.
Yes, that would cost us, but so does the “free” help the big developers offer. And the time to explore it is now, before it’s too late to pursue it, as happened in the Third Round, when the Council deferred too much to hired experts and wound up with only a few poor options for the redevelopment of Post Office Plaza in 2022.
If the Mayor & Council do choose to pursue another redevelopment project, they must take care not to repeat the mistakes of the past, such as overestimating the PILOT revenues and letting BNE slide on the promised solar panels at the Ivy.
Perhaps most important are for the Mayor & Council to: 1) refrain from placing blind faith in experts; 2) maintain control on matters of policy, instead of ceding those decisions to experts; and 3) stand firm in negotiations, refusing to waive any rights or negotiated terms without strong justification and ample compensation.
4. Surviving Round Four
In the Fourth Round of Affordable Housing that begins in July 2025, the Borough will need to:
negotiate with Fair Share Housing Center as to an additional affordable housing quota for the period 2025-2035;
persuade a Superior Court judge to approve a fair settlement; and
satisfy the judge that the Borough is living up to its promises so the judge will extend through 2035 the Borough’s immunity from builders’ remedy lawsuits and exclusionary zoning challenges.
Unless the Mayor & Council can satisfy the Superior Court on that score by September 29, 2026, the Borough will lose its immunity, leaving it vulnerable to more lawsuits and severe punishments, including the loss of what little control we still have over zoning and planning, as has happened in towns like Millburn and Englewood.
That said, it’s absolutely critical for the Mayor & Council to stand firm, refusing to waive any rights or compromise its negotiating position in any way without strong justification.
5. Revising the Master Plan
By 2026 Chatham must reexamine its Master Plan, the all-important document that will determine our local zoning and development policy through 2036.
That’s serious business. Even an innocent error in the Master Plan could spell disaster for Chatham.
So though it’s the Planning Board that will do the heavy lifting, the Mayor & Council should make it their business to understand the nuances and implications, be vigilant, and raise their concerns in time to make a difference in the outcome for Chatham.
* What’s the difference between property taxes and PILOT payments?
But will our Zoning Board have the courage to say NO?
Will our Zoning Board have on record the evidence necessary to make its decision stick on appeal?
Can Chatham residents help?
Yes, but we must act now, while there’s still time to get the necessary evidence on the record before the Zoning Board decides.
After that, it will be almost impossible to stop the new convenience store, which will bring more traffic, deliveries, crashes, litter, noise, pollution, and garbage into the already dangerously chaotic intersection.
What can you do? Plenty!
First, consider chipping in to help your neighbors and friends hire a good lawyer who can make sure the Zoning Board gets all the evidence necessary to make the right decision stick on appeal.
Unless we get enough pledges soon, we won’t be able to hire a lawyer. Without a lawyer, we’ll be gambling on our future. So if you don’t want a convenience store clogging up the corner of Hillside and Main St, please asap e-mail your pledge to: [email protected]
Second, at the very least, join your neighbors and friends at the special Zoning Board meeting set for Tuesday, January 30, 7 PM, at Borough Hall, 54 Fairmount Avenue. (Use the north side entrance and take the elevator to the upper level.)
Please note that the Zoning Board has announced that there will be NO further public notice of hearings in connection with this Exxon application.
* The author has chosen not to participate in, or vote on, the application in her capacity as an alternate member of the Historic Preservation Commission.
PS The new owner sidestepped a significant part of the review process by chopping down a healthy tree before the Zoning Board could hear his application. https://chathamchoice.org/2023/10/gone/ Despite documentary proof that he wanted that tree gone, his engineer testified that cutting it down was the result of a misunderstanding.
Good news: The Zoning Board didn’t ok adding a convenience store to the Exxon station at the busy corner of Hillside & Main. Or rather they didn’t approve it at the December meeting.
But that doesn’t mean the Zoning Board won’t approve it on Tuesday, January 30, 2024, when the hearing on the Exxon application continues! (7:00 PM at Borough Hall, 54 Fairmount Avenue)
That January 30 hearing may be your last chance to find out what’s going on and have your say before the Zoning Board votes to waive at least eighteen normal zoning rules for the sole benefit of the new owner of the Exxon station.∞
This hearing promises to be a fun one. We’re expecting to hear the new owner’s hired traffic expert testify that the intersection of Hillside and Main is ok, and can handle more cars and trucks on the road and darting in and out of the Exxon lot.
Please join your friends and neighbors at the hearing on the Exxon convenience store at 7 PM on January 30 at Borough Hall, 54 Fairmount Avenue. (Use the side entrance and take the elevator to the upper level Council Chambers.)
*The author has chosen to abstain from participating in or voting on this issue in her capacity as an alternate member of the Historic Preservation Commission.
(Yes, the hearing is less than a week before Christmas! No, that doesn’t give residents much chance to ask questions or make comments. Can the Zoning Board postpone the hearing? You’ll have to ask them. Email the Borough Administrator, [email protected])
Don’t you just love driving through the intersection of Main Street and Hillside Avenue, past the Exxon station?
Don’t you just love the narrow, misaligned streets? The challenge of turning left – or even right – without a crash?
Do you think it’s safe for a 12-year-old to cross there alone? Is it even safe for an adult?
Would you like to see more cars and trucks trying to navigate that tricky intersection, where children must cross on their way to school?
Would you like to see more cars and trucks crisscrossing the sidewalk to get gas at the Exxon station? No?
How about a stream of cars and trucks crossing the sidewalk to enter and exit the new convenience store (with bright lights, long hours, probably more litter, noise, and maybe some loiterers) that would replace the friendly car repair shop we’ve trusted for decades – and that currently closes at 6:00 pm?
Our Zoning Board is considering waiving the normal zoning rules to allow the new owner of the Exon station to do just that.
Wouldn’t that kind of place detract from our Historic District?
Why would they even consider taking such a risk without first correcting the street misalignment that makes that corner so tricky?
The corner indicated in red is not part of the Exxon lot. It is property of the Borough that could be used to better align the streets, improve traffic flow, and likely reduce accidents. (Amateur markup of Borough Tax map sheet 27)
The Zoning Board shouldn’t approve the Exxon proposal absent strong proof that it would serve Chatham Borough in some clear way, and wouldn’t undermine the purposes of our zoning laws or Master Plan. https://chathamborough.org/boards/zone
The hearing on that proposal is set for this Wednesday, December 20. This is your chance to get the facts and have your say.
Don’t wait until it’s too late to make a difference.
If you cannot get the public Zoning Board hearing postponed until after the holidays, come to the hearing this Wednesday, Dec. 20 at 7:30 pm, Borough Hall, 54 Fairmount Avenue, take the elevator to the upper level.