It’s already been a busy year in Robbinsville Township, and indications are that the pace won’t be slowing down any time soon.
In January, a state Superior Court judge ruled in the township’s favor in its action to condemn the 210-acre Washington Woods property on Robbinsville-Edinburg Road, and the township settled a lawsuit filed by the Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill disputing the amount of affordable housing the township needs to provide for through the year 2025.
The Washington Woods decision follows on the heels of an overwhelming approval by township voters in November of a referendum to increase the township’s open space tax by 1.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. In addition to providing funding to buy Washington Woods, the open space tax will also be used by the township to purchase the golf course at the Miry Run Country Club, which shut down in 2015.
The purchase of the golf course is high on Mayor David Fried’s to-do list for 2017, along with trying to force the developer of Washington Woods to restore that property to the state it was in before it stripped the site bare. The developer decided to go ahead with clearing work at the site, despite the fact that the township notified them it planned to condemn the property.
Another acquisition by the township expected this year is the purchase of the Mercer Mobile Home Park, which is a key component of the township’s affordable housing settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center. The township is only of only four towns in Mercer County — Ewing, Hamilton and Trenton were the others— that was able to reach a settlement with Fair Share and avoid a trial in which state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson will rule on the number of affordable housing units townships will have to provide.
Also expected to happen in 2017 is a sheriff sale of the Foxmoor Shopping Center, which is currently in foreclosure. Once a new owner is at the helm, township officials will be able to start discussions about the future of the center, which was named an area in need of redevelopment by the township last year. According to Fried, there are already several parties interested in the shopping center, each with a different idea for its redevelopment.
Robbinsville Advance senior assistant editor Bill Sanservino recently sat down for an interview with Fried during which he answered a wide range of questions regarding these properties. An edited version of the interview appears below.
Where are you at with Washington Woods?
I think we’re on really good standing with the cost of the property. To this date, the developers have not turned in an appraisal higher than our appraisal.
This will now go to what they call three freeholders, which are three people appointed by the court—I believe two are attorneys and one is a real estate person, and the three of them will assess the value. They will take a look at our approved appraisal and then if the other side turns in an appraisal, they’ll decide what the value should be.
Without an appraisal from the other side, I’m feeling very comfortable that we’ll probably be in very good stead with our appraisal.
What is that number?
We’re at $8 million. With us getting $2 million from the county, if this property winds up costing us $6 million, that’s probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a seven year return if you think about what it would have cost us in the number of school kids.
It doesn’t seem like it happens very often where a town condemns a property for open space.
Usually you are able to work things out with a developer. We could have hung up their planning board approvals. We didn’t, because that would have been the wrong thing to do. They got their approvals, which actually made their land more valuable.
We told them exactly what we were planning on doing and then they went out and did site work anyway. It was very frustrating, and it’s going to end up being very costly for them. Not only did they do work they didn’t have to do, but we’re going to be asking the developers to pay to restore the dirt back the way it was.
This space has been in our open space plans for the better part of 10 years. They knew that this was something we were interested in preserving. I would have thought that the developer would have waited to see if our referendum passed. Instead, they decided to spend a significant amount of money to fight the referendum—which is their right—but I really was surprised to see them start the site work.
You have ownership of the property now?
We do, and we’re going to get some quotes to see what it takes to restore the property back to its original place. We may lease it back out to a farmer, which will then allow us to pick up some revenue.
What are some of the damages that happened? It looks like a big dirt field now.
That’s pretty much what they’ve done. They’ve stripped all the top soil off and put it up into piles. The good news is that it’s a lot more challenging to pick the dirt up and put it into a big pile than it is for us to bulldoze it back to where it was. They’ve also inserted some drains into the property, which we can bury, because we’re just going to do farming.
Did they remove any trees?
They removed a significant amount of trees, and that was one of the things we were most disturbed about. Many of these trees were 100 years old. We had a number of residents, and myself, who went out and tried to stop them from taking down trees. We know that was going to be the irreplaceable part. The challenge is that we’re going to be planting saplings, and the trees that were taken down are much older. There’s nothing you can do to replace 100 years.
Are there any long terms plans for the property other than just leaving it as open space or to be farmed?
Maybe some path connectors would make some sense. We can connect a couple of the nearby neighborhoods. And we can also take a path out to the high school, which might make some sense for the kids to be able to get out to a crosswalk. Otherwise, I think it makes more sense to leave it open.
Looking at the other piece of the referendum, and probably just as significant a property, is the Miry Run golf course. Where does the town stand on that parcel?
That owner has also been put on notice. The council has already put it into open space. We have been trying to negotiate with the property owner and will continue to try to negotiate. He is probably going to be equally difficult as Washington Woods.
We may have to move towards condemnation. We’ve already done our first appraisal, which is part of the process. We’ll now begin the process of a condemnation appraisal. There’s a whole host of things you have to do to file the condemnation rules.
There is a party that’s interested in buying the clubhouse portion of the property to do a banquet hall. We’re hopeful those two parties will come together and be able to do an amicable sale. The township would then carve that piece out and then preserve the actual golf course. We’re not opposed to that banquet hall. It would be a good ratable for the town, and it makes some sense.
Do you have any numbers in terms of what the property is valued at?
Our appraisal came back in for the entire property at $2 million. What we don’t know is how much of the commercial piece—the banquet hall—is going to carve off. Once that price is established, we’ll subtract that amount from our appraised amount.
That’s significantly lower than Washington Woods. Is it because of its zoning and the fact there’s no development approval there?
That’s correct. It doesn’t have residential approval. Today it’s only zoned for a golf course. So it’s significantly less value for almost the same amount of acres.
Why is there a reluctance to sell the property? Has the owner mentioned any kind of plans as to what they’d like to do with the property?
They would like to develop the property, and I think the most likely scenario for them would be residential, which is not something that’s in the township’s plans. That doesn’t really work for us. I believe it’s the right thing to do to preserve it as open space.
We’re taking a look at maybe doing soccer golf there on the weekends, which could be kind of fun. Get the kids out. It doesn’t take a whole lot of maintenance. We’ll keep it mowed and looking nice. Beyond passive recreation, I don’t think we’d do anything there. Maybe some bike paths, walking paths, some benches. But no fields. We don’t really have a large passive piece for recreation in town, so that would actually be a really good spot.
If the township hadn’t reached its affordable housing settlement, that could have been a prime property for a lawsuit for a development with affordable housing.
There’s no question. That that was my number one fear of what could happen to that property.
What was the township’s thinking that ultimately led up to your affordable housing settlement?
There were a number of factors we took into account. The number one thing for me was to make sure that we did the right thing for the town and did something that made sense. I was grateful for the fact that Fair Share, the group that was suing us, recognized the fact that Robbinsville did a good job as far as affordable housing.
Our first meeting with them was a bit contentious, because I was bit aggravated that they were even suing us. We were one of the few towns that actually has 10 percent of its housing stock that is affordable.
I think there was a bit of a misunderstanding when they looked at what we were doing. Once we started talking to them, we realized that we were a lot closer to being on the same page than we thought.
The second part was that they and I had the same goal in helping the Mercer Mobile Home Park. This is where our most vulnerable residents are, and they have really had a bad go with the last two owners. The original owner had a terrible relationship with the residents, and this new owner has been more of an absentee landlord.
This has been a property that has been on my radar screen for a while, because I really feel like they are not doing the right thing for these residents. Fair Share felt the same way. As we started meeting, we realized they really wanted us to move forward and to protect the mobile park.
Once we realized we had the same objectives, the opportunity became more and more evident that we could settle. Being able to purchase the mobile home park was something we wanted to do. We know that we can manage it, we know that we can do a good job.
How were you able to arrive at the 638 number?
It was actually Fair Share’s number. We already have 300 built. We’re one of the few towns that has that much already in place. When we took a look at what we needed, there wasn’t a whole lot left. When we added in the Mercer Mobile Home Park, it almost got us to our number.
We have a few units that we will be building in town center and a few group homes that we’ll do. The majority of the extra 300 that we need to build will come from the mobile home park.
That sounds like a pretty good deal. Based on what you’re telling me, the town is protected through 2025 and most of it is accomplished through the mobile home deal?
Almost all of it. Think about it. We get all of the affordable credits that we need with no increase to our residents, with no impact on our community, and no impact to our schools. This is about a good a win as you could ever ask for. If we had to build another 300 or 400 units, if we had lost this lawsuit, a developer would want to probably build in the neighborhood of 700 or 800 units in addition to giving us the 300 affordable. We could have been looking at 1,000 units and are schools are already at capacity. It would be catastrophic for us.
What is the plan for the mobile park?
The town would purchase the property. We have money in our affordable housing trust fund ($3 million) to purchase it. We can bond whatever is left over and the mobile park has cash flow to pay for it, so it becomes tax neutral for our residents.
The sewer is ultimately going to fail there and needs to be replaced. The current owner bonded for replacement of the sewers but hasn’t done it. They haven’t pulled any permits to do it, so it doesn’t look like it’s even on their radar screen. When it fails, ultimately those residents are going to come to the township for help, and we’re going to have to get involved.
We’ll have people on site, and we’ll make the property look a lot nicer. It needs some curbing and some streets, again something we’re very good at. So when you look at the infrastructure the park needs, we’re good at taking care of grounds, streets and sewers, so this really fits to what we do.
We’ll be able to use our resources to better the property. We can bond for sewer improvements and recapture the money through the sewer fees. Our public works department can help fix the property up. Right now they don’t even have a maintenance person on site.
It will also allow us to have a presence in the park. Right now when we have challenges, they typically happen at the mobile home park. It’s where our most vulnerable residents are. It’s where the lion’s share of our Meals on Wheels Program goes to. The program is sometimes the only check that some of these residents get. So having somebody in the park to be able to check on the residents, some of whom can’t get out of their home, is going to be a good thing for us. We’ll know if someone falls or if they have a problem.
Changing gears a bit, where is the township at with the Foxmoor Shopping Center?
The current owner was foreclosed on by the bank, and the bank has taken it to the court. They are going to be headed toward a sheriff sale.
The challenge, from what I understand, is that there was a bit of an environmental hiccup. A dry cleaner in the center may have had a bleed into the property next door. They are trying to get that sorted out, and when that’s done, it’ll go to a sheriff sale.
What happens after that?
There’s a half-dozen people interested in the property. We’ve seen a number of really interesting possibilities. People have come in and want to do some neat things—from a high-end movie theater that has food, to a really interesting event place for kids, which is about all I can say on that idea.
We’ve taken a look at the possibility of taking down the second building, the building that’s closest to Route 33. There’s a proposal from a developer who wants to take that building down, move those businesses into the main center and then create three restaurants along that corner along Route 33. That would give us some Route 33 frontage.
There’s no shortage of people who are interested in doing something there. We have one specialty food store—not quite a supermarket, that could also have a high-end food shopping aspect to it.
A lot of people interested in the center. It’s just a matter of getting a clear title and a new owner.
Another challenge is that a small slice of the property is in Hamilton Township. In order to annex, I’d need permission from the Hamilton Council. Before I go that direction, I also need permission from the owner. So I need a clear owner who has a title to agree to then go to Hamilton.
I think there’s probably something we could work out with Hamilton to pick that up. From there I think we’ll be in good shape. People keep asking why I haven’t gone to Hamilton, but technically I can’t go to Hamilton until I have an owner who is willing. The last thing I want to do is go to Hamilton and get permission and then find out the owner isn’t interested. We’ve got to do one step at a time.
Do you know what the timeline is, in terms of foreclosure and the sheriff sale?
It should happen in the next six months. It’s been scheduled for sheriff sale now twice and it’s been postponed. I think the postponement has been because they’re dealing with this environmental issue, but I suspect it will happen this year.