CRANFORD — Between changes to local ordinances, large-scale redevelopment projects and other ongoing challenges, this past year has been a busy one for the Township of Cranford. Here is a look back at 2023.
In January of 2023, the Cranford Planning Board granted its approval to a mixed-use redevelopment project slated for construction at 750 Walnut Avenue.
The project has been a source of contention in the township for several years and has resulted in developer lawsuits and other legal challenges for the community.
The finalized redevelopment agreement allowed the property to be divided into separate commercial and residential spaces. The commercial area will house new distribution centers for smaller businesses. The residential area, meanwhile, will consist of 250 units, 38 of which will be designated as affordable housing.
Hartz Mountain, the project’s redeveloper, applied for nine areas of relief for the project, including a 63.5-foot building setback where a 100-foot setback is required, the removal of a proposed basketball court, parking spaces, sidewalk width, lighting and window placement. The township’s planning board ultimately gave the project the green light on the condition that the redeveloper foot the bill for a post-approval traffic study.
Construction on the project began earlier this year. Since then, township officials have said, residents have complained of heavy traffic delays and dusty work conditions.
In March, Sergeant Tim O’Brien of the Cranford Police Department filed suit in state Superior Court against the township and its mayor after being denied a promotion for what he called “retaliatory” reasons.
Sgt. O’Brien, who joined the force in 1998, alleged in his complaint that he had been asked by Mayor Brian Andrews to bring a former police officer known for his inflammatory social-media posts to heel.
According to the complaint, Mayor Andrews utilized his personal Facebook account to ask Sgt. O’Brien to “check in on” Detective Brian Lopez, who retired from the department in 2018. “Hey Tim — I’ve been getting a lot of weird messages from your friend Brian Lopez. You may want to check in on him — I know this time of year can be tough on some people. People know you are close to him, so it is unfortunate this kind of thing reflects on you as well,” Mr. Andrews wrote to Sgt. O’Brien in a message dated December 18, 2022.
Sgt. O’Brien replied that he had no control over what Mr. Lopez had to say, and notes in his complaint that he was denied a promotion shortly after the conversation took place. Sgt. O’Brien is seeking a trial by jury and $12,000 in punitive damages, the salary increase that he would have received had the promotion gone through.
The case is still pending. Mr. Lopez, meanwhile, filed his own complaint in federal court against Mr. Andrews for allegedly violating his constitutionally-protected right to free speech.
Mr. Lopez’s case was ultimately dismissed.
Next month, Cranford voters will be asked to weigh in on a $75-million bond referendum that will allow the district to complete a number of capital improvements and implement a new, full-day kindergarten program. According to information provided by Superintendent Scott Rubin, Ed.D., the bond, if approved, would result in an average tax increase of about $34 per month for Cranford residents.
The referendum, which will include $19.6 million in state funding, would allow the district to upgrade its schools with better accessibility options, a more up-to-date technological infrastructure and new science labs among other proposed improvements.
The district has held numerous public-engagement sessions throughout the past year to better inform voters about the upcoming vote.
More information can be found at cranfordschools.org/.
The district also has seen a few administrative changes this year.
In March, the Cranford Board of Education welcomed Thomas Manzo to the district as the high school’s new principal, and earlier this month, Steven VanDam, Orange Avenue School’s longtime assistant principal, announced his plans to retire.
“I will miss my daily interactions with the students, talking to them, and hopefully helping them navigate middle and elementary school — it was the best part of my day,” Mr. VanDam said, speaking during a recent board meeting “I want to thank the people of Cranford for giving me such a great opportunity to be a part of this great school system for the last 25 years. I hope I gave more than I took.”