Downzoning hearing continues Tuesday

Committee to seek more input at township hall

By: John Tredrea
   Interest on the part of the public in Hopewell Township’s current downzoning proposal is such that officials have found it necessary to hold a third session on the controversial measure.
   That special meeting of the Hopewell Township Committee — part of a public hearing that began Monday night and continued Tuesday night at Central High School — will be held Tuesday, Dec. 17, at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the municipal services building on Route 546 (Pennington-Washington Crossing Road).
   More than 100 people attended the first two sessions of the hearing that focused on the plan that, if adopted as law, would downzone most of 58-square-mile Hopewell Township.
   Dozens of local residents and officials spoke during the first two sessions, voicing comments both for and against the proposed downzoning.
   Supporters of the plan to increase required lot sizes argued the move is needed to protect existing well water supplies from overdevelopment and preserve the township’s rural character. Opponents, many of them landowners affected by the proposed zoning change, said the plan would unfairly prevent them from subdividing their land to finance their retirement or build homes for their children.
   Under state law, the Township Committee cannot cast an adoption vote on the proposed ordinance until the committee has voted to end the public hearing. If that were to happen on Tuesday, the committee’s next regular meeting — at which action could be taken — is at 7 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 19 — just two days later.
   The proposed downzoning is needed because of the lack of public sewers, as well as limited groundwater and other resources, Planning Board members and other township officials and consultants have said. The proposed downzoning, backed unanimously by the township Planning Board, reflects a complete rewriting of the township’s Master Plan, a project which has been under way for several years. An ordinance that would implement the downzoning was introduced by a unanimous vote of the full Township Committee on Nov. 21.
   Under the proposed ordinance, the permitted density of development in what is now called the Mountain Conservation zone be changed from one residential unit per 6 acres to one unit per 14 acres. The name of the zone also would be changed to Mountain Resource Conservation. The zone covers most of the northern one-third of the township.
   Reduced from one residential unit per 4 acres to one unit per 6 acres would be the permitted density of development of the zone that covers most of the central one-third of the township. The name of this zone would be changed from Valley Agricultural to Valley Resource Conservation.
   At Central High School Monday night, the need to conserve groundwater was a dominant theme of those who spoke in favor of the proposed downzoning ordinance. Except for the 1,300-unit Brandon Farms development, which gets public water from Trenton, almost every residential and commercial property in the township is served by private wells. Backers of downzoning fear that too much development could adversely affect existing wells.
   "Water is a critical issue," said Barbara Wahlers, a township resident, who supports the downzoning. "New Jersey is an extremely densely populated state. If you don’t have water, you don’t have anything."
   Russell Swanson, a township resident and Planning Board member, agreed. Mr. Swanson said he initially was skeptical of the need to downzone to the extent currently being proposed. However, hydrogeological studies commissioned by the township convinced him the proposed downzoning is warranted.
   Resident Judy Karp agreed. She said to the committee: "You asked Mother Nature what our limitations are and she has spoken." She added: "Virtually everyone on the Township Committee has been elected on a platform of trying to preserve our rural character." Adoption of the downzoning is key to that effort, she said.
   Many other residents made similar comments.
   Opponents of downzoning also attended the public hearing in legion.
   Gary Schnurr of Woosamonsa Road said his plan for years has been to subdivide his 13 acres so one or more of his children could live on it when they are grown. He said he wouldn’t be able to do that if the downzoning goes through.
   "I’m being penalized for not subdividing my property earlier," he said. "You’re taking from me the ability to provide for my family and my retirement. I think we’re going way past what we need to do to preserve our quality of life."
   William Baggitt, who has lived on 28 acres off Hopewell-Amwell Road for 30 years, agreed, saying he too had hoped to give several lots to family members. He said the reduction, from one unit per 4 acres to one per 6 acres, is unwarranted for the section of the township in which he lives. "Four-acre lots would preserve our quality of life," he said. "I appeal to your sense of common sense here. There is a limit. You should be able to have a variety of lifestyles."
   "I think this is a taking of our land," said resident Sophie Pedersen of the proposed downzoning. Ms. Pedersen lives on 27 acres on Pennington-Rocky Hill Road. "We have homes on both sides of our property," she said, adding that, in her view, those homes render the name of the zone in which she lives, Valley Agricultural, somewhat absurd.
   Other opponents of the proposed downzoning made similar comments.
   Several residents suggested the township consider financially compensating owners of large tracts of land that would be downzoned, or to allow exceptions to the downzoning in cases of subdivision of property to create lots for members of the immediate family of the owner.
   At the outset of Monday night’s public hearing, Mayor Jon Edwards said he and other committee members would respond to public comments once the public hearing has been adjourned.
   Merrill Lynch — on behalf of itself and a large number of landowners — filed a petition of protest (against the downzoning) Monday that, if deemed valid by township attorney John Bennett, would require under state law at least four of the five Township Committee members to vote for the ordinance in order for it to pass. If valid, only three votes would be needed for passage. Mr. Bennett’s office expects to know by Friday if the petitioners are valid ones.
   The petition represents the "property owners of 20 percent or more of the area of lots or land included within the existing zoning districts," according to Annette Bielawski, township clerk. She said those wanting to see the complete list of petitioners can view the documents at township hall. The list is lengthy, she indicated.
   Merrill Lynch has a large office park, Southfields, on 450 acres east of Scotch Road and north of I-95. Merrill’s petition on the proposed downzoning pertains to 440 mostly -undeveloped acres the firm owns west of Scotch Road and north of I-95. Under the downzoning, that permitted density of development on that land would be changed from one unit per 4 acres to one per 6 acres.