Development Controversy in East Brunswick Approaching Conclusion

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ—The East Brunswick Planning Board is preparing to vote on a proposal to build several buildings, including a Chase Bank and a CVS Pharmacy, at the corner of Summerhill Road and Old Stage Road.

The plans, which also include 96 apartments, have drawn controversy and some of the board's hearings were moved to the Hammarskjord Middle School’s Jo Ann Magistro Performing Arts Center due to overwhelming public interest.

The group of developers, led by Nicholas Minoia, previously asked that a scheduled February 27 hearing be postponed so that they could revise and review the final site plans after mounting pressure from the local community.  It marked the second time that they withdrew their site plans for further internal review.

The group, HD Summerhill, LLC, is a partnership between Hampshire Companies and Minoia's Diversified Realty Advisors. The corporation is the sole owner of the property at 337 Summerhill Road, which currently consists of one office building, parking, and landscaping on the 10-acre lot of land.

Superior Court Judge Daniel McCloskey initially ordered the board to act on this application by February 27, as a result of a lawsuit brought by the developers against the township.

McCloskey also banned Mayor Brad Cohen from participating in any of the meetings and from voting on the application due to his previously stated opposition to the project.

Under New Jersey law, Mayors are automatically considered a voting member of their Township's Planning Board. Therefore, Mayor Cohen would have been a guaranteed vote against the project.

But HD Summerhill alleged that Mayor Cohen made it known that he would use Ordinance 18-29 as a weapon to prevent the applicant from further developing the Summerhill/Old Stage Site.

McCloskey found that the ordinance referenced in the lawsuit was meant to target and jeopardize the HD Summerhill application. 

The judge ordered a special master attend all planning board meetings to update the judge on the plans progress.

In response to lawsuit, the township, mayor and planning board attorney wrote that in July 2018, the township asked the planning board to conduct a Master Plan reexamination.

They explained that the ordinance was developed by the Planning Board as a recommendation to make proposed changes to the Township Code that would reflect current development trends and practices. This meant the lot where HD Summerhill intends to build. They argued that they were just making the zoning on the lot consistent with nearby properties in the zone.

However, the Township backed down and conceded that they wouldn’t consider the application under the proposed amendments in the ordinance because the application was deemed complete and a hearing date was set.

McCloskey's new deadline for the board to take action is March 28, leaving just one more public meeting to conclude the hearing with a vote for or against the plans.  That meeting is scheduled for March 27 at 7:30pm at Memorial School in East Brunswick.

It's unclear if the plan will actually be put to a vote in time to meet that deadline, however, with the applicants still hoping to present testimony from their civil engineer and traffic engineer, and an attorney for objectors still needing time to make his case to the board.

On March 12, HD Summerhill's attorney presented the revised site plans for the second time.  The partnership wants to transform the site, which borders Spotswood, into an elaborate complex including 24 units of "affordable housing," and three times as many "market-rate" units.

In May 2016, following a settlement in Superior Court, the Township of East Brunswick approved a plan to comply with the state's affordable housing requirements, which included this site and recommended the area be re-zoned.

But neighbors in both East Brunswick and Spotswood have been organizing against the project for some time now.

At the Planning Board's January 23 meeting, more than 100 people attended. Over the course of the meeting, Minoia gave some background on HD Summerhill, LLC, and his personal experience with the corporation.

“I am one of the managing partners of HD Summerhill.” Minoia stated. “My background is comprised of over 40 years of real estate development work which includes everything from high rise construction management to real estate development.”

Minoia explained his background includes the construction, the development, the management and the policing of all forms of real estate. He claims that, in concert with his partner, he has developed approximately 10,000 multi-family units over a four-year history.

After shedding light on HD Summerhill, Minoia went on to detail that the "Golden Corner" location was chosen by the corporation to be redeveloped because it was zoned for affordable housing.

"The opportunity was brought to us as a property that Mack-Cali, the prior owner, was liquidating as part of a reduction in his portfolio and a resizing." Minoia continued. "One of the main attractions for us was the fact that the underlying zoning was an inclusionary zoning for affordable housing, which we specialize in."

The partnership is represented by attorney David Himelman, a former State Senator and the Chairman of the Middlesex Ethics Board. In an interview with New Brunswick Today, Himelman defended the proposal.

“This was an opportunity they felt was a good one for a variety of reasons.” Himelman said. “First of all, the property was rezoned for residential housing under the township affordable housing compliance plan."

"Mr. Minoia, I think, explained that his companies have built many residential, retail and commercial properties all over the state," continued Himelman. "This is their business. And they thought East Brunswick was an appropriate market, in particular, for rental units of this type, which are going to be upscale, but I’m presuming they did their appropriate market analysis and they believe this is a good market plan.”

Guided by Himelman, HD Summerhill presented new plans on March 12, which show four three-story apartment buildings, along with separate bank and pharmacy buildings along with accompanying landscaping and parking.

In past site plans, the developer sought to build five apartments. Now HD Summerhill hopes to finally seal the deal with the planning board by reducing the density of the development alongside other minor changes.

According to HD Summerhill, the new plan cuts the number of apartments from 120 to 96, but keeps the number of affordable units at 24 by only cutting back on market-rate units. This puts them over the state mandate for affordable units on the site, which is 20%.

“The applicant did file a conceptual revised plan which revised the existing site plan and modifies the plan in a variety of ways.” Himelman said. “It reduces the number of units from 120 to 96, also it reorients many of the buildings on the site. The parking has been modified: there has been some additional parking provided for public access for Frost Woods. And several other, of what I would consider significant modifications.”

But what was presented at the March 12 meeting was not the final site plan. The submitted plans had not yet been reviewed by the planning board staff. This was met with frustration from citizens in attendance and board members alike who felt that they were being presented something that could change again by the next meeting.

Director of Dynamic Engineering Consultants, Brett Skapinetz, presented the revised site plan again using various aerial views of the proposed development. Skapinetz highlighted the new, more spacious layout of the site plan with the removal of one apartment building and the addition of more green space and parking.

Yet these changes were not the peace offering that HD Summerhill hoped they would be. This time around, the planning board questioned the developer about a new array of issues regarding the project. The board was adamant about the inclusion of a playground space for the children of the families that would rent the affordable units.

The next witness to testify was Jack Raker, the project architect from Minno & Wasko. Raker reviewed his PowerPoint presentation on the architectural make-up of each building as well as a first look at what the exterior and interior of the planned development will look like.

“The buildings are essentially identical, except for the amenity space.” Raker said, detailing the exterior of the apartments. “All the materials are high quality materials. Fiber cement siding, brick, metal sun shades, metal siding.”

While the development looks promising on paper, Raker’s PowerPoint presentation was not enough to completely persuade the public or the board, who remained skeptical of how the final build will look like versus the plans concerning some of the proposed amenity spaces. The movie theater, dog washing area, and outdoor amenity space sparked a lengthy debate.

The professional planner for the developers testified that the site was planned well and in accordance with the area. Planner John McDonough explained how “this plan will marry up with the surrounding neighborhood.”

After McDonough’s testimony, surprisingly, there were no questions from the board. Considering the frequent concerns and questions from board members for each prior witness, this was a rare moment.

While HD Summerhill sees their plan as a "good market plan," many in the local community have been quick to voice their opposition. The outrage has even led to the formation of a local resistance group and website, dedicated to protecting the East Brunswick community from the redevelopment.

Cathy Decker, a cofounder of the website SaveFrost.com explained the growing dissaproval that locals have towards the project. An East Brunswick resident for more than twenty years, Decker says it all started last summer.

“SaveFrost.com was the brainchild of my husband David Decker and he and I run the site together.” Decker says. “The website begun early last summer when news of the planned high-density redevelopment became public. We now have more than 45,000 unique visitors.”

SaveFrost.com was started to inform and motivate the community to action. Decker states that she opposes the redevelopment at the “Golden Corner” for a number of reasons that ultimately led to the formation of SaveFrost.com:

It is absolutely uncharacteristic of the neighborhood, will make an already bad traffic situation worse, impact the community’s access to Frost Woods, and possibly the wildlife there, and will set a bad precedent, making way for similar situations with unforeseen consequences.

In terms of informing and motivating the community, the website managed to do more than just that. A June 7, 2018 Planning Board meeting was cancelled after the extremely high turnout from the local community led to an overcapacity at the venue.

Decker feels that the local community was driving SaveFrost.com and not the other way around, but the impact of the website is unmistakable.

“I feel that our friends and neighbors in East Brunswick and Spotswood have always been community minded.” Decker told New Brunswick Today.

“Their concern for what happens here is part of what makes living in the area special. While we may have started the website, there was a groundswell of local concern for what was proposed. We handed out flyers, talked to neighbors, took to social and contacted the press.”

The fight continued into the next meeting on July 16, 2018. There, SaveFrost.com held a food drive at the meeting to support Community of Hope Ministry local food pantry. That meeting was also called off after Himelman, on behalf of HD Summerhill, requested more time in order to review and revise their plans.

Proceedings picked up again until September, when the applicant sent its revised plans of the development in a letter to the Middlesex County Planning Board.

As 2018 turned into 2019, the developers prepared to try to move forward again, this time with the Mayor no longer able to participate in the hearings, and tensions boiled over again at the January 23 meeting.

In their opening statement, HD Summerhill's attorney took time to call out SaveFrost.com and other online media that they claimed had spread false information regarding the development. Himelman went on to correct the record according to the facts presented by HD Summerhill:

As this board is aware, there has been extensive coverage both on social media, including East Brunswick Helping Each Other, and other discussion in public forums regarding the issues of concern relative to this application expressed by certain citizen groups and residents, including the Borough of Spotswood. Specifically, there is an opposition group which has referred to itself as SaveFrost.com, which was formed to express concerns regarding the subject application. While the applicant appreciates the intent of the residents who form and follow savefrost.com, the applicant believes there is information and facts which have been disseminated as a part of their website which are not correct. For example, as stated on the SaveFrost website relating to this project: “Save our schools, save our roads, protect home values, prevent further congestion, and guard frost woods.”

Himelman attempted to clear up any misconceptions that HD Summerhill had not been listening to and adapting the planned redevelopment based on local concern.

“The applicant agrees with the concerns expressed by SaveFrost.com as to the importance to safeguard the Frost Woods Park.” Himelman stated. “Simply stated, the applicant will not modify, alter and or change Frost Woods, and thus it will be permanently maintained as a preserved area forever. Frost Woods will be saved.”

While HD Summerhill may declare Frost Woods saved, Decker doesn’t believe that the corporation has been properly addressing the concerns of East Brunswick citizens during the application process.

“I think the developer is a businessperson and is motivated by profit.” Decker said. “That is the way of business.”

"I believe he and his team have done their due diligence and are working with their attorney and professionals to propose a plan that meets the requirements of the law," Decker continued.  "The concerns of the citizens are another matter altogether and, on this point, we’ve made our position clear. HD Summerhill’s proposed plan is unacceptable.”

In the face of the organized resistance from SaveFrost.com and the Borough of Spotswood’s choice to object to the  redevelopment, Himelman contends that the applicant is doing their best to attend to the issues raised by concerned locals:

I don’t think the applicant is looking to do anything to further exacerbate or get anybody upset. That’s not in their best interest. They were very careful when they proceeded with this that this was a busy intersection at Old Stage Road and Summerhill Road. And so they began this process by meeting with Middlesex County Planning and Engineering to go over how and what improvements could be done to this existing roadways to the front edge of the property and at the intersection. And they spent literally three years dealing with this with county, sets of meetings, and we got an approval. They understood and felt that if they worked with the county, that they would attempt to alleviate and certainly not make things worse and actually improve the access and intersection that currently exists today.

With widespread opposition mounting, HD Summerhill remained optimistic. However, the January 23 hearing largely consisted of planning board members and citizens alike sparring with the applicant over parking, the flow of traffic, and how it affects Frost Woods.

And it was more of the same at a February 6 hearing. This time, HD Summerhill went back and forth with board over the dates of traffic surveys, and the Planning Board's traffic expert agreed that new traffic surveys needed to be conducted in order to get more data.

HD Summerhill also made updates to the development plans since then, including new parking dedicated for visitors to Frost Woods and a new entrance to the apartment building parking lot meant to open up traffic flow.

Regardless of the minor concessions made, the public was outraged to hear the applicant's traffic expert testify that traffic might improve with the addition of the new development on the "Golden Corner."

At one point when questions were open to the public, the applicant interrupted a concerned citizen to remind the board that their five minutes were up. Chairman Shawn Taylor looked visibly annoyed and reminded the applicant that the board runs these meetings.

However, Judge McCloskey, had ordered that HD Summerhill be allowed to present all witnesses back-to-back without facing public questions and also imposed a five-minute time limit for testimony from members of the public unless they are represented by a lawyer.

Despite the time constraints, locals in the community still feel their voice should be heard. Decker says that the planned redevelopment is not a fit for her hometown at all.

“This plan does not meet the character of its proposed site in East Brunswick.” Decker said. “There may well be areas of East Brunswick that are perfectly suited to a high-density project such as the HD Summerhill plan, but not the corner of Summerhill and Old Stage.”

And while she didn’t say if she thought the board would vote against the development, Decker offered some praise to their handling of the application.

“I think the board has listened carefully, asked thoughtful questions and has our best interests in mind.” she says.

Decker believes the turnout for the final board meeting will remain consistent with the previous meetings as the local community is ready to fight this application until the end.

“I’m confident that the audience will remain engaged.” she says. “Unlike the developer, we’ll continue to live here and what happens matters.”

When asked if HD Summerhill felt the board would vote in favor of the application, attorney Himelman stated he can’t comment on the matter. However, he went on to say “I believe the staff and the planning board I think they are very thoughtful, they asked excellent questions and I’m confident they will do an appropriate and thorough review.”

The next East Brunswick Planning Board meeting regarding the HD Summerhill application will be held on March 27, 2019 at Memorial School in East Brunswick at 7:30pm.

Chairman Shawn Taylor then gave the public the opportunity to comment. High turnout remained consistent into this meeting with more than 100 people from the local community in attendance. Fewer people wanted to comment, probably because most concerned citizens already have.

This time around, questions and comments are not as intense and sparse in number this time. The crowd is persistent yet losing stamina as the hearings drag on. But the local community was always there to clap and support a well stated thought or sassy comment.

Public comment ends and the meeting is essentially over. The groundwork for the next meeting is laid as the board speaks with a lawyer for the objector. Thomas Barlow is the attorney for two objectors, Cathy and David Decker.

Decker and her husband run a local opposition group opposed to high density housing projects in East Brunswick named SaveFrost.com. SaveFrost has been a motivating force for the local community since the beginning in July of 2018.

According to a post on their website, the revised site plan was still to cluttered for East Brunswick.

“One less building, too much density” the post on SaveFrost.com reads.

After determining it will take Barlow a few hours to make his case, the board went back and forth over the possibility of another extension for the application without coming to a decision. The meeting ended with a vote to move the start time for the March 27 meeting up to 7:30pm in an attempt to avoid another late night.