ROBBINSVILLE: Supreme setback

Top court declines to hear Robbinsville’s case

by James McEvoy, Managing Editor
ROBBINSVILLE — The state Supreme Court has declined to hear the township’s case against Sharbell Building Co., which seeks to convert as many as 150 age-restricted units to nonage-restricted units.
   By declining to hear the case, the court effectively has ended township officials’ attempt to halt the conversion.
   Mayor Dave Fried said he learned of the court’s decision over the weekend and was disappointed.
   ”This is a bad a law,” he said, referring to the 2009 state law, which gave developers the right to convert housing approved for seniors into developments for any age groups.
   ”We knew because it was a bad law that it would be difficult to prevail in court, but sometimes you got to fight the fights that are worth fighting,” he said.
   As he had previously, along with other township officials, Mayor Fried lamented the impact of the conversion, saying it would add more school-age children to a crowded school district.
   ”Our school system in Robbinsville is already dealing with overcrowding,” he said. “We’re in the middle of building an expansion. Having the Legislature turn around and give us another 300 to 350 students (through the 2009 law) on top of a system that already isn’t being adequately funded is like offering a drowning man a glass of water.”
   The mayor further suggested Sharbell should be “good corporate citizens” by considering to contributing to the building of a school building.
   ”A win for Sharbell shouldn’t necessarily be on the back of taxpayers,” he said.
   Sharbell Vice President Tom Troy said he was pleased to see the legal process conclude approximately two years after the initial denial of the township Planning Board.
   ”I’m happy that we’re through with the legal process,” Mr. Troy said. “Now that we’re through that, we’re evaluating our options.”
   Among those options, apart from building the converted units, include Sharbell selling a portion of the land area that includes the converted lots to the township for municipal purposes.
   Another option would entail Sharbell selling the units to a third-party company, which he said would acquire a larger portion of land for the purposes of constructing an indoor and outdoor recreational facility.
   ”We’ve had dialogues ongoing both with the town and this other entity, and (we) are looking at those two options as exactly that — options,” he said.
   Mayor Fried said the town still is open to the purchasing a portion of the site, but is waiting to see how things proceed between Sharbell and the third party.
   The mayor noted by township purchasing the back half of the property, between 75 and 150 students would not come into the district, saving $1.5 million per year in school taxes.
   He said if the township were to purchase the site, it likely would become recreational field space, conveniently located between Community and Tandem parks.
   The Supreme Court decision comes months after an appellate court ruling Feb. 27 gave Sharbell the right to proceed with construction of single-family units on a tract at the intersection of Route 130 and Gordon Road.
   The township Planning Board appealed Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg’s January 2012 reversal of the board’s denial of Sharbell’s plan to convert the units. The board approved Sharbell’s original plan in October 2006 for a total of 264 residential units, a farmette and 60 barrier-free housing units for Project Freedom, for people with disabilities, on 439 acres.
   ”We conclude that Judge Feinberg realistically applied the law to the circumstances she found in Robbinsville and rightly upended the board’s improvident denial of conversion relief,” the court wrote in its Feb. 27 decision.
   The appellate division comprises judges Joseph L. Yannotti, Jonathan N. Harris and Richard S. Hoffman.
   Sharbell’s conversion application contended economic conditions had changed, making the original plan no longer viable. The 2009 state statue granted developers the right to make the conversion because of the change in economic conditions and the need for “workforce housing.”
   In upholding Judge Feinberg’s decision, the court wrote, “The board’s unfortunate focus on the project’s impact on the public fisc, rather than to the land use concerns, renders its decision palpably unreasonable.”
   The Planning Board held five hearings in 2011 on Sharbell’s application before denying it in April that year. Both residents and public officials argued the conversion proposal would create an influx of school-age children into a district that already was overcrowded and leading to school tax increases.
   Sharbell officials previously have said that if Robbinsville is interested in acquiring the property that was the subject of the suit, the organization is ready to listen to a proposal.
   More recently, the Planning Board gave the green light for other portions of the project in May, approving the final site plan for a phase of the project that includes 24 market-rate condominiums in a single building.
   The board also gave final major subdivision approval for other phases of the development, which include 54 residential units on 44 proposed lots, including four mixed-use residential and commercial lots, 30 residential lots and a municipal lot dedicated for the future development of the Project Freedom facility.
   The phases approved at the meeting all are located in the northeasterly part of the development near the intersection of Route 130 and Gordon Road.