Residents showed up in full force to the Aug. 22 meeting of the West Windsor Zoning Board to express their opposition to the Celebrations at West Windsor—a proposed 400-plus unit affordable housing development.
The meeting was a continuation from a July 25 hearing for the project, which is proposed for a 21.5-acre tract bounded by McGetrick Lane, Southfield Road and Westbrooke Boulevard.
Public comments began at the first meeting, but due to time restrictions, were continued at the Aug. 22 meeting, at which the majority of the time was set aside for public comments.
The meeting was attended by members of the Heatherfield Family Association, a group of homeowners in Heatherfield who expressed their reservations about the development.
The association has hired an attorney, Jeffrey Baron, to represent them on this case. Baron, who spoke first during public comments, noted that case law supports objections by neighbors with a vested interest in the land.
An overarching theme of the public comments was that the proposed development would lead to overpopulation, thus affecting many aspects of West Windsor life—especially the school district.
Woodland Court resident Theza Friedman said that she has watched “as the schools are literally bursting at the seams, having classes in hallways and closets, because there’s no space. And now we’re talking about adding 420 units. This seems unfathomable, and I’m not sure how the district is supposed to manage this.”
Sophia Lennox, a senior at High School South, shared her experience with this overpopulation. She said that during her sophomore year, her Spanish class was held in a gym closet, and she’s seen gym classes grow to upwards of 50 to 100 students per class.
Ajay Billay of Millar Court, a parent of current and graduated WW-P students, said she too has experienced this overpopulation. He said that as a result, he’s decided to send his youngest twins to Princeton Day School, because he believes the crowding has decreased the quality of education and extracurricular opportunities for students.
Another issue brought up was traffic congestion. A number of residents complained that traffic to reach the train station every morning from has already increased dramatically, extending a trip of just a few miles to 20 minutes. They said the development would exponentially increase traffic in the area.
“Driving on Rt. 571 has become a nightmare,” Billay said regarding peak-hour traffic.
In response to a comment by the applicant arguing that a residential development would generate less traffic than a commercial one, Muyi Lian of Haverford Road said there are inconsistencies in data. She also gave examples of commercial projects that have not increased traffic.
Attendees also expressed concerns about safety. Himanshu Patel of Westbrooke Boulevard shared a story about his daughter, who was involved in an accident on Rt. 571, which he attributed to increased traffic. He said that traffic from the development would lead to more accidents.
Tondapati Chaudry of Priory Road and Jean Grecsek of Woodland Court both said they sustained injuries due to the unsafe conditions for walking, jogging and biking on Southfield Road caused by traffic.
Attendees also made a point that the proposed development would compromise “tranquility,” which is one of three attributes—tranquility, research, knowledge—listed on the township seal.
Heatherfield residents spoke about how they valued the open space, nature and peace in the village-like setting of the area, and said the new development would significantly disrupt this atmosphere.
Some residents who have lived in the development for many years said that when they purchased their homes, they were told that the property would be developed with a commercial project. Multiple residents said they were still in favor of a commercial project, adding that having more doctors’ and lawyers’ offices nearby would be a great benefit to the community.
Property owner Jack Morris and his company, Piscataway-based WWM Properties West LLC, have submitted a concept plan that would require a use variance from the Zoning Board.
The tract is currently zoned as P-1, for a planned small-scale village center, and the applicant is requesting a use variance to allow for residential uses.
Morris is also the owner of Edgewood Properties, the developer of numerous properties throughout central New Jersey. Edgewood and WWM are listed as being located at the same address.
During the July 25 meeting, the applicant and its team of professionals presented plan that calls for a multi-family project with 420 affordable units within 14 residential buildings. The breakdown is 84 one-bedroom, 168 two-bedroom and 168 three-bedroom apartments. Also on the site would be a 6,076-square-foot clubhouse.
The property was originally part of the Heatherfield development of 99 residential homes along Southfield Road. That development’s builder, Garden State Land, had left the area open for its future corporate offices, but the property was auctioned off after Garden State Land went bankrupt.
According to Sam Surtees, West Windsor land use manager, the applicant has proposed a number of different projects in the past, all of which have been rejected since they did not meet the requirements of the parcel’s zoning.
Under the current proposal, the apartments would rentals for people who qualify for very low, low or moderate-income housing.
Very low income for one person in Mercer County is defined as between $20,834 and $34,723 per year, low income as between $34,723 and $55,557 per year, moderate income as between $55,557 and $69,447 per year.
These designations are county specific and change regularly, based on census information and median average incomes.
The board will continue hearing the application at its meeting on Thursday, Oct. 3. Baron and a professional developer hired by Heatherfield Family Association are expected to provide their case against this development. Time will also be set aside for more public comments and testimony from township professionals.
Sources have told The News that the project is unlikely to be approved, since it is not in alignment with West Windsor’s current master plan or its court-approved affordable housing plan.
Also, the fact that this is a stand-alone affordable housing project goes against the township’s general housing policy. A number of officials have pointed out that the township prefers inclusive projects—developments where the affordable units are mixed with market-rate housing.
Meanwhile, use variances are among the most complex and difficult to get approved. Under the state’s Municipal Land Use Law, the developer must prove that the project would provide a benefit to the community as opposed to its current zoning.
To be approved, the zoning board application must have a supermajority, with at least five yes votes from the seven board members. If the board votes against the variance, the applicant has the option of filing litigation against the township to challenge the decision.
Sources have also told The News that there is no desire to zone for more housing of any type in West Windsor.
In May, State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson approved the township’s plan to meet its requirement to provide for 1,500 units of affordable housing. The township recently went through a round of master plan and zoning changes to make them consistent with the affordable housing plan.
There are a number of developments included in the affordable housing plan, but the Celebrations application is not one of them.
Any lawsuit filed on the grounds that the development provides affordable housing would likely lose, since Judge Jacobson’s ruling protects the township from affordable housing litigation through the year 2025.
A report by the West Windsor Affordable Housing Committee notes that the proposal is inconsistent with the township’s master plan. “We’ve already rezoned properties and are reviewing site applications from those developers, in order to build the affordable housing units (approved by Judge Jaconson),” Surtees said.
According to the Affordable Housing Committee, the density of development does not meet the requirements for the current zoning, the buildings are much higher than allowed, and the floor area ratio is similarly high, indicating a property that could become overdeveloped.
Meanwhile, other reports by township professionals note additional concerns with the plan, including the density of development, the amount of impervious area, and a lack of environmental information.