Zoning Review Committee Completes Assignment, Disbands

Early in 2006, Mayor Rich Madden wrote letters of instruction to the various township boards and subcommittees. To the Board of Health, his instructions were to continue to protect public health, with particular attention to preserving a safe and adequate water supply. To the Board of Adjustment, his instructions were to continue to uphold the Land Use Ordinance, and not relax the requirements for variances. To the Planning Board, he gave orders to pursue similar goals by reviewing zoning and proposing changes. In response to Mayor Madden’s instructions, the Planning Board recommended forming a Zoning Review Committee (ZRC), a citizens’ advisory committee to the Township Committee and the Planning Board.

Mayor Kristin McCarthy announced appointments to the ZRC in 2007, and its work began in earnest in Spring of that year. After a series of public outreach meetings, the ZRC began to focus on the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), an innovative planning tool that would allow the municipality to preserve land, fund COAH housing, set standards for size and look of some new units, protect ground water, and numerous other Master Plan goals. Gradually, though, the community grew leery of the TDR concept: it would require immediate construction of two or three hamlets, several hundred units in all; it would also require a long-term relationship granting the state extensive authority over a myriad of planning details in the township. Residents, elected officials and volunteers alike were apprehensive: TDR seemed good in concept, but could be damaging to the township’s character in its implementation. With this realization, the Planning Board asked what other planning tools were available to achieve some of its Master Plan goals, without the rapid extensive development and intrusive state regulation that a TDR plan would entail.

The Planning Board’s professional planner for zoning review, Caroline Armstrong, told the Planning Board at its regular meeting on Tuesday, December 16, 2008, that Non-Contiguous Clustering together with downzoning was the best option.

Non Contiguous Clustering with Downzoning

Ms. Armstrong, former Director of the Hunterdon County Planning Department, has been advising the township government on zoning review for the past two years. She introduced her presentation last night by summarizing the Township’s goals and the options that exist to help meet them. At this juncture, she pointed out, the township could decide to a) do nothing; or b) “downzone”, i.e. increase lot size; c) downzone with an option to cluster housing on smaller parcels; this would require an amendment to the township’s Waste Water Management Plan (WWMP) to allow construction of small septic treatment systems, including constructed wetlands; or d) pursue TDR.

Ms. Armstrong summarized the pros and cons of the various approaches:

EXISTING ZONING: The Township currently has 3 – and 6 – acre zoning. The only advantage in retaining the existing zoning is that there would be no cost to the Township for a Master Plan revision. The “cons” are; homogeneous development; no permanent preservation; failure to meet nitrate standards; vulnerability to future zoning changes; no State plan endorsement – potential revocation of COAH certification.

LARGE LOT ZONING – “STRAIGHT DOWNZONING”: The advantages to this approach are that the new lot sizes would be large enough to farm and to qualify for farmland tax assessment; also the larger lot sizes would conform with the groundwater study. The disadvantages are: vulnerability to future zoning changes; homogeneous development; no preservation.

LARGE LOT ZONING WITH CLUSTERING: The advantages to this approach are that  it preserves land and permits limited agriculture; the alternative septic systems allow for more creative subdivision design. The disadvantages are suburban intrusion in ag areas; it is limited to suitable septic areas; there are limited housing options.

TRANSFER OF DEVELOPMENT RIGHTS: TDR has many advantages, including the fact that it provides housing diversity; equity protection; potentially faster preservation; better separation of homes and farms; better fiscal balance possible via housing options and commercial uses; most control over planning and design; preservation of large contiguous areas; in all, it supports the greatest number of Master Plan goals. The disadvantages are increased planning costs and infrastructure, and faster growth.

Ms. Armstrong gave a power point presentation summarizing the four different approaches. She said that retaining existing zoning protects landowner equity, but leaves drinking water at risk, and risks losing rural character, intrudes on agriculture, and is inconsistent with the State Plan. With its current 3 and 6 acre zoning, Delaware Township fails to meet existing standards for nitrate dilution in drinking water. Also, 3-acre lots are too small to farm.

Simple downzoning to larger lot sizes, which leads to reduced density, is a procedure that has been tried by East Amwell, West Amwell and Hopewell Township, among Delaware Township’s neighbors, and elsewhere in the state. It has been tested and upheld by the courts. It offers little or no assurance that equity in developable land will be preserved.

Reduced density with open lands zoning offers some equity protection, drinking water protection, and some preservation of rural character, farmland and open space, by means of a simple change in zoning. The downside of this approach is that it has only partial consistency with the State Plan, and makes no provision for housing diversity.

Downzoning with creative clustering has several advantages: better equity protection, drinking water protection, preservation of rural character, farmland and open space; it requires a relatively simple zoning change, is less costly than TDR, and will require less development than TDR; sewage capacity to facilitate this approach may be available via Stockton. The approach also has its disadvantages: it makes little provision for housing diversity; additional density may be needed as an incentive to developers; the Waste Water Management Plan will need to be amended; not as much land is preserved as with TDR; increased density means more growth and a larger COAH obligation; and finally, without incentives, tightly clustered development is not likely to happen.

The Planning Board had already looked in depth at TDR, Ms. Armstrong continued. She asked the Planning Board Chairman whether the Board had reached a consensus about this approach. From members’ comments it became apparent that the original enthusiasm for TDR, on the Board and in the broader community, had waned somewhat, but no one on the Board thought that “doing nothing” was an acceptable option, and no one was in favor of straight downzoning, either, without any equity protection. With three out of four approaches eliminated, some form of downzoning with provision for tighter clustering appeared to be the Board members’ preferred approach.

Ms. Armstrong commented that the township already had in place an ordinance permitting clustering, “but no developer is going to take advantage of it because you don’t provide an incentive; the township hasn’t amended its Waste Water Management Plan to permit small scale sewage treatment systems”.

Throughout her presentation Ms. Armstrong alluded to conditions that will impact development in Delaware Township that are outside the township’s control. First, the recession, the credit crisis and the depression in construction will continue for some time, and conditions may not return to what we now consider “normal” for some time. Second, the uncertainty about the supply of oil and energy in general raises doubts as to whether the kind of large houses currently preferred by developers in this area will continue to be marketable. Third, it’s worth asking whether the old “normal” of car-dependent housing in remote areas without possibility of mass transit is sustainable or desirable.

Ms. Armstrong pointed out that, if the township does not pursue TDR, “the moderately priced housing component of the Township Master Plan is going to be the hardest goal to achieve. Demographics are changing; more townhouses are being built in response to changing demand, but they tend to be built in more urban areas. But I don’t think there will be a lot of people who want to live in townhouses who will want to live out here in rural Hunterdon County.” With that, Ms. Armstrong yielded the floor to Chairman Ken Hyman.

Discussion by the Board

Chairman Hyman thanked Ms. Armstrong for her work, and told the Board that the immediate task was to form a consensus.  He asked each member at the table to share their opinion on the various alternatives and each person spoke with detailed understanding of the nuanced options. Members were unanimous in their opposition to the “do-nothing” option.  Comments by the board also showed a unanimous interest in the clustering option; two of the seven voting members present expressed regret that the TDR concept had not been more popular with residents. A roll call vote produced a unanimous decision not to pursue TDR at this time.  A second vote showed that the Board is in favor of a combination of downzoning and non-contiguous clustering and will make that recommendation to the Township Committee.

ZRC Chairman (and Post Editor) Roger Harris was one of the nonvoting advisory members of the Board who continues to favor TDR as the option that meets the most of the Master Plan goals, but he also supports taking a closer look at clustering as a fair compromise. At the end of the meeting he expressed a sentiment of gratitude and respect for the opinions and concern of the board members. His compliments to the members of the ZRC for their efforts were echoed by the Board and he pointed out that the ZRC has completed its tasks.  With that he resigned from the Chair position. A motion was approved to disband the Zoning Review Committee. Work will continue in the New Year on noncontiguous clustering. The Planning Board will write the Township Committee formally recommending increasing minimum lot sizes. The board will also recommend a noncontiguous clustering option in the zoning ordinance, as well as a revision to the Waste Water Management Plan to facilitate clustering.