Westfield OKs PILOT Agreement; Signs LOI for Edison Field Project

By JESSE WINTER
For The Leader/Times

WESTFIELD — In a jam-packed night for the Westfield Town Council, the governing body took the steps in authorizing ordinances that have been weighing on the public’s mind, including a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) or tax abatement agreement with the firm Elite Properties of Warren for the construction of the sites outlined in the South Side Redevelopment Plan, known as Westfield Crossing.

Council members Linda Habgood, Dawn Mackey, David Contract, Scott Katz, Mark Parmelee, James Boyes and Michael Dardia voted yes on second and final authorization of the ordinance into municipal law. Mark LoGrippo voted no, with Mayor Shelley Brindle also voting yes.

The PILOT agreement requires Elite Properties to pay 10 percent of its total revenues for the first six years, with incremental percentage increases beyond that. Year seven will see an 11-percent payout; year 13 a 12-percent payout, and year 21 a 13-percent payout to the town. As per New Jersey law, the town retains 95 percent of the revenue and 5 percent goes to Union County each year. Under state law, PILOT revenue does not have to be shared with the board of education (BOE).

Critically, the ordinance sets in motion a project that will see the town offer 36 units of affordable housing, fulfilling part of a court-mandated obligation to provide affordable-housing opportunities within the municipality.

The PILOT project, the first undertaken by Westfield, will see the creation of three mixed-use buildings consisting of 193 residential units. The redevelopment plan also outlines 17,000 square feet of retail space and 320 parking spaces.

The sites sit on approximately 5.6 acres of property in an area of Westfield ruled to be “a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment” by the town back in 2020. In early 2021, the council approved the South Side Redevelopment Plan, which includes areas of South Avenue East and Windsor Avenue on the east side of town on the border with Garwood. Currently, the lots within the redevelopment plan host light-industrial sites, and in some cases are vacant.

Under the PILOT agreement with Elite Properties, the developer also will be required to pay $380,000 into the town’s Park Improvement Fund. The South Avenue Redevelopment Plan also calls for the developer to construct a park within the site which will eventually be deeded over to the town for ownership.

Elite Properties’ prior projects include nearby Fanwood Crossing.

The passage of the PILOT ordinance was not without public disaffection over the council’s decision to authorize the financial agreement with Elite Properties.

During a public hearing leading up to the final vote, public opposition revolved around concern that Westfield Public Schools would be short-changed by the PILOT agreement, and potentially overburdened by an influx of new students into the school system from the new residential units.

Mayor Brindle and Robert Powell, managing director of Nassau Capital Advisors — a firm that assisted the town in negotiating the proposed PILOT with Elite Properties — both set out to assuage concerns from the public.

In comments posted on the town’s Facebook page leading up to the council vote, Mayor Brindle explained her administration’s rationale for the decision.

“As a reminder, this project is part of our court-ordered Fair Share Affordable Housing settlement that was negotiated by the previous administration, and we are now simply charged with overseeing and enabling its implementation,” the mayor’s comments read. “Some are floating a narrative that a PILOT agreement short changes funding for the schools, which is simply not true.

As a matter of fact, Elite’s original proposal included 32 three-bedroom units, but the PILOT agreement enabled us to implement a reduction of 24 three-bedroom units and allow only the eight-minimum required by the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), mitigating the number of school-age children the development would potentially attract.”

Mayor Brindle added, “It’s also important to note that school enrollment has been declining, and 2022 projected enrollment by the BOE is on par with where it was in 2015, so any school-age kids resulting from this project would not require the schools to expend incremental resources or capital funds to educate them.”

Mr. Powell went on the record and said the agreement with Elite Properties and the subsidizing of the affordable-housing units contained within the project would not be possible without a PILOT agreement, citing lower potential profits without a tax abatement, which would not be adequate enough to incentivize the developers and avoid inherent risks taking on a project of this magnitude.

A PILOT, Mr. Powell would go on to reiterate, is the only way to move the project forward with its constitutionally-mandated affordable-housing obligations.

Some residents were still disaffected by the decision and used their voices to convey their opposition.

Kerry Murphy of Codding Road expressed skepticism over a minimal student impact on the school system throughout her comments.

“I think there’s cause for concern; I think there’s a need for clarity,” said Ms. Murphy. “Everyone keeps saying that the schools aren’t overcrowded and there’s plenty of room for growth. We still have art-on-cart, we still have music-on-a-cart.”

In a major development for the town and its many young and budding athletes, the town passed a resolution authorizing a letter of intent that the municipal government enter into a shared-services agreement with the Westfield Board of Education in connection to Edison School Field.

During a presentation given to the town council and the public, the town outlined a plan that would overhaul the Edison School Field and create multi-purpose fields over the existing two baseball diamonds and include LED lighting and more resilient turf fielding. Currently, Edison Field hosts varsity and junior varsity baseball, football and band practices – and track and field activities – in addition to physical education classes. The proposed expansion of the facility to a multi-use field complex would add sport fields that include lacrosse, field hockey and soccer.

According to a purely “conceptual” presentation given by the Spiezle Architectural Group of Hamilton, N.J., the multi-purpose fields and supplemental upgrades could cost up to approximately $18.2 million if all the features of the project were pursued.

The town plans to engage in significant public outreach and feedback in the months to come, according to town officials. For more information, see the joint letter from Mayor Brindle and Board of Education President Amy Root on Page 6.

Another affordable-housing-related ordinance also was passed, on second and final reading. The ordinance amends the town’s agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center, shifting affordable-housing unit obligations from the Handler Building site to the Williams Nursery site. Both sites are within affordable-housing-zoned districts included in the town’s Fair Share Housing Plan. The town’s Fair Share Housing Plan aims to meet the town’s court-mandated obligation to provide affordable-housing opportunities for eligible families and individuals.

With the Handler Building no longer planned to accommodate residential units, including affordable-housing units agreed upon in the town’s 2018 agreement with Fair Share Housing, — a non-profit that advocates for each municipality in the state to provide “its fair share of affordable housing” — the agreed-upon six affordable units are being transferred to the Williams Nursery site.

Consequently, the Handler Building site now is eligible for commercial development and is not slated to host affordable-housing units under the town’s current zoning laws.

“This amendment allows for the adoption of a redevelopment plan for the Handler Building site, so commercial development could occur there, in lieu of 100-percent residential development as is allowed for in our existing zoning,” explained Town Planner Donald Sammet, addressing the planning board on June 7. “In other words, we’re really shifting the affordable-housing obligations from one site to another,” said Mr. Sammet. “It’s important that I emphasize the town’s affordable-housing obligations do not increase with this amendment; it’s just shifting where the affordable-housing units are going to be built, from point A., the Handler Building site, to point B., the Williams Nursery site.”

In other ordinance news, the town council and mayor unanimously passed an ordinance banning recreational cannabis facilities in Westfield. The ordinance bans recreational cannabis facilities for the foreseeable future. For the town, “opting out” now does not preclude the possibility of the town opting in to recreational cannabis at a future date, town officials have continually emphasized.

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