East Brunswick Planning Board denies Hidden Oaks Woods plan plan due to environmental concerns

VASHTI HARRIS/STAFF

EAST BRUNSWICK–The East Brunswick Planning Board voted to deny Alfieri’s application for its proposed Hidden Oak Woods development plan.

The plan proposed the construction of seven four-story buildings with 275 residential units, 54 of which were supposed to be affordable housing units. The property is approximately 45 acres, located at Harts Lane and Tices Lane and Eagle Road and Mill Brook Court, according to former Township Planner Steven Gottlieb.

The proposed development also included a clubhouse, an amenity area, a pool, lighting, landscaping, sidewalks, fencing and signs, according to attorney Frank Petrino, who represents the developer.

East Brunswick Mayor Brad Cohen said that about 30 residents attended the meeting on Feb. 13, which ended after midnight.

Cohen said the application was denied by the board for two reasons, one of which involved environmental grounds.

“The applicant did not have an updated letter of interpretation from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP),” Cohen said. “Basically, for any new development that is a requirement, it basically says that the DEP has come in and evaluated the land for wetlands, there are no areas that need to be filled in, there are not areas that need to have protection from species and trees, [and] there’s not environmental disruption from wetlands, that’s a requirement.”

Cohen said the applicant’s letter of interpretation from the DEP was obtained almost 20 years ago.

“Through the recession and through [Superstorm Sandy] the development industry was hit very hard and as a result, a lot of developments that were planned on being developed were put on hold,” Cohen said. “A lot of developers either went bankrupt or there were many financial difficulties … so the government decided at that time that they would extend present letters of interpretations so that it wouldn’t require the DEP to go out and reevaluate properties. They did that to sort of help stimulate regrowth in the development industry, which occurred.”

Cohen said the applicant’s letter of interpretation was extended until June 2017 and they never got a new one after that, so it is expired.

“[The applicant] came up with alternative letters from the DEP, but those alternative letters do not substitute for an updated letter of interpretation from the DEP,” Cohen said. “The [board] has every right to demand that because as most of us know, it’s possible that the DEP’s standards may have changed in almost 20 years and areas that may have not been determined to be wetlands 20 years ago may be considered now. … We don’t know, that is why we require an updated letter of interpretation.”

If there are significant changes on the proposed site that the applicant wanted to build on, Cohen said it’s possible that they would not have been allowed under today’s standards.

“The board has the right and the responsibility to have updated information and the applicant was neglect in that regard,” Cohen said. “So that was the number one reason that it was denied.”

Cohen said the board looked at this application no differently than it would look at any other application, whether it’s part of a Council on Affordable Housing settlement (COAH) or not.

“The role and the responsibility of a planning board member is to make sure that properties that they approve or applications that they approve are safe in the public’s interest,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t really matter to them, nor should it, that it’s part of a COAH settlement.”

Cohen said the second reason the application was denied was because of the traffic concerns at a very busy corner near the proposed site.

“There are two busy corners, Harts Lane and Tices Lane, and Tices Lane and University Road, and while the affordable housing settlement that was made in 2016 called for them to make some changes to the road in order to accommodate what they knew would be a traffic problem, the board and our experts felt that was not sufficient and so they come back with three different options for fixing the road,” Cohen said.

Cohen said the first option was an option agreed upon in the 2016 settlement, and then there was a second and third option, which each got more expensive.

“The board felt that the third option, which was the most extensive and the most expensive would be the one that would that if we had to agree to this application would be the one that would help the traffic situation the most,” Cohen said. “The Alfieri representative … checked with Alfieri and they were unwilling to pay for that third option.”

If the applicant re-applies to get its proposed plan approved by the board, Cohen said they should get an updated letter of interpretation from the DEP and agree to the traffic and road changes that would be required to help alleviate the traffic near the site.

“Until there is such a time that they do that, I don’t think that the board would be in any position or would want to change its opinion. These are requirements that we made now,” Cohen said. “They have the right to come back and comply and re-apply. I don’t know if they have the grounds for an appeal. … Our job was to evaluate the application on its merits and that is actually what was done.”

For more information, visit www.eastbrunswick.org/content/885/101/default.aspx.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.