CRANFORD — After more than a year of discussion and debate, the Cranford Committee voted Tuesday to approve the first reading of two ordinances that would seek to grant tax abatements to two major redevelopment projects (one at 750 Walnut Street and the other at South and Chestnut) slated to be constructed within the boundaries of the township.
“The only major commonality between these two projects is that they both play a role in our affordable housing plan,” Township Attorney Ryan Cooper told The Westfield Leader. The first ordinance (2022-27) would grant a 30-year PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement to the Hartz Mountain, the redevelopment entity behind 750 Walnut Avenue. Mr. Cooper told The Westfield Leader that the township is projecting a return of approximately $45 million over the designated time span.
The ordinance passed with a vote of 3-2, with Mayor Kathleen Prunty and Commissioners Brian Andrews and Jason Gaeris voting to approve and Commissioners Gina Black and Mary O’Connor voting against.
Commissioner Black said while she respects the township professionals and the decisions made so far, she did not understand what the town was really gaining by saying yes to the PILOT program. Ms. Black did not understand why a large corporation needed so much time to pay the money off.
Commissioner Mary O’Conner also added she felt Hartz Mountain was not listening to the concerns of residents. She highlighted that Hartz Mountain was moving the driveways even with residents pushing back and a traffic study she felt fell on deaf ears. Ms. O’Conner went on to add she felt Cranford could get a better deal out of Hartz Mountain and that the residents have not been treated in good faith.
Commissioner Brian Andrews and Deputy Mayor Jason Gaeris said the agreement with Hartz Mountain had been made before their time in office and there was an obligation to follow it. Mr. Andrews made a point to say the previous committee had negotiated Hartz Mountain down from 900 units to the current 250 units. Mr. Gaeris said while this may not have been the best project to agree to, it would not benefit the township to back out of the agreement now. Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty added the project “was never my dream or vision for the town” but it was partially her responsibility to take care of it.
The project at 750 Walnut led to a lawsuit between the township and Hartz Mountain in 2019, when after several public meetings, Hartz Mountain’s project was denied. Hartz Mountain did not file a builder’s remedy lawsuit but claimed the town was denying affordable housing to residents. The township settled with Hartz Mountain and one of the settlement stipulations included a PILOT program for the residential side of 750 Walnut. The new round of public hearings for this project are also still currently underway at the planning board as well.
The second ordinance, which was unanimously approved by the commission, would seek to grant a five-year abatement to Iron Ore Properties, LLC, for the construction of two independent residential complexes slated for construction along South Avenue East and Wanut Avenue. The project is expected to be rolled out in two separate phases – first, the 37-unit complex on Walnut Avenue, and then, later, the 55-unit residential building on South Avenue East.