Spotswood makes case against snuff mill plan


Spotswood officials are stepping up opposition to the current plans for Helmetta’s former snuff mill.

Kaplan and Cos. is seeking to redevelop the 32-acre mill site with 200 non-agerestricted housing units, instead of its previously approved plan for 225 senior homes. The builder has begun testimony before the Helmetta Planning Board, and the board may render a decision at its Jan. 13 meeting.

Several residents and officials of both Helmetta and Spotswood have expressed opposition to the plan, largely due to the concern that it would result in additional schoolchildren. Since the state forced the two towns’ school districts to merge this year, residents of both will be sharing the burden of the combined school budget starting next year. Kaplan’s planner, Paul Phillips of Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates in New York, told the Helmetta Planning Board Dec. 9 that the community would likely produce 20 to 30 school-age children. Jason Kaplan, president of the company, has said that based on a formula used by the Bloustein School of Planning at Rutgers University, this type of housing produces one child per 10 units, which would amount to approximately 20 school-age children.

However, Spotswood Board of Education President Richard O’Brien said he thinks the developer used “a very conservative approach” to project the number of children. O’Brien said a different formula led him to estimate that more than 100 children would live there.

O’Brien said Spotswood High School has some remaining capacity to handle additional students, but younger students would be going to the town’s most populated schools — Schoenly, for preschool through first grade; and Appleby, for grades two through five. Of the borough’s four schools, Appleby is closest to its capacity, he said.

O’Brien said the fear is that the apartments would draw younger families, and most of the children would be in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Kaplan is proposing 63 one-bedroom units, 127 two-bedroom units and 10 threebedroom units. Twenty percent of the total number of units would be set aside as affordable housing.

Several Spotswood officials, including O’Brien, Mayor Tom Barlow and council President Curtis Stollen attended the Dec. 9 meeting in Helmetta. Like O’Brien, Stollen said he disputes that idea that the development will result in just 20 to 30 school-age children. Stollen noted that the majority of the proposed apartments would have two or three bedrooms. Also, he said he believes the current state of the economy will draw in families who have been forced to downsize to apartments. He fears that enough new students will be added to the schools to warrant another building referendum.

Due to the recent consolidation, any future referendum would have residents of both Helmetta and Spotswood paying the interest and principal, O’Brien said. Under the previous arrangement, Helmetta paid only the interest on such referendums.

Kaplan is applying to convert the building plan to nonsenior housing in accordance with a new state law. Signed by Gov. Jon Corzine in July, the law is designed to provide more affordable housing and spur the economy by helping developers who are finding no market for their approved senior housing plans.

Stollen said he finds it frustrating that the state is allowing developers to back off their agreements to provide age-restricted housing.

“They’ve taken this age-restricted housing project, erased the age restrictions and made it so you can raise kids there,” he said.

The state, he added, is intervening in what would otherwise be a municipal land-use decision. The new law clears the way for developers to go back on agreements that were hammered out over the course of years between developers and the leaders of towns such as Helmetta.

Also at issue is the market for age-restricted housing. Jason Kaplan said it has become too difficult to sell age-restricted housing due to an oversaturation of that market, though Stollen refuted that claim. Kaplan said his firm could not even find a bank willing to provide financing for that type of housing construction.

An attorney representing Spotswood attorney was asked to author a letter of opposition to the plan, and is expected to provide testimony at the next meeting in Helmetta, Stollen said.