MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — The township may declare the entire sprawling municipality an area in need of rehabilitation in a move aimed at jumpstarting redevelopment.
The three-member Township Committee discussed the possibility with redevelopment attorney Jim Maley at a recent workshop meeting.
The designation would give the township specific powers to encourage development, he said, including easing the path for approval of projects township officials favor and allowing the township to offer a tax benefit.
If the township eventually approves the designation, it could offer a tax abatement, but only on the increase in assessed value created by the project. For instance, if a homeowner decides to build an addition or make another improvement, that will increase the value of the home, which in turn will increase the assessment that decides the local tax bill.
As Maley explained it, the township would ease into that increased assessment over the course of five years, providing a financial incentive for the improvement. This would also apply to large-scale commercial or residential projects, with the assessment on the increase in value being phased in rather than occurring as soon as the work is completed.
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“It’s nice to not slap somebody in the face when they fix up their property,” Maley said.
The township has sought to encourage new development and rehabilitation of existing properties for years. That includes compiling a listing of abandoned properties. In 2018, the township declared a wide swath off Indian Trail Road a redevelopment zone, seeking the additional powers such a declaration affords to try to lure a project to the patchwork of wooded lots in the Goshen section of the township. That was the latest in a series of redevelopment plans for the area going back decades.
The township has also declared redevelopment zones for a former concrete plant in Rio Grande and for the shopping center that once housed a Kmart near Routes 9 and 47.
A developer was in negotiation with the township for the concrete plant, with plans for apartment buildings and townhomes on the 22-acre stretch of land. It sounds as if that deal may have fallen apart, or at least been delayed.
“That’s been dead in the water for over a year. It was a good plan,” Mayor Tim Donohue said. “What the developer was asking for in terms of concessions was more than we were willing to do.”
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But the other area is in the midst of a redevelopment project, a mix of public and private use known as County Commons. That project is set to include county buildings, new businesses and more. Local officials and veterans advocates celebrated the opening of a new Veterans Affairs clinic in December.
According to Donohue, the redevelopment zones sought to bring in major projects. The current proposal is on a smaller scale.
“The approach under the previous administration was to try to hit these big home runs. We thought, why don’t we try to hit some singles?” he said. By encouraging smaller projects, he suggested, the township may build toward larger improvements.
Maley told committee members that declaring a need for rehabilitation is less complicated than declaring the revitalization zones.
“It is a much easier process, it’s less complicated, than the redevelopment process that we went through with a couple of different areas in town,” he said. The state requirements are less stringent — the municipality only needs to show that the area needs improvement.
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The township would not be able to assert the power of eminent domain, also known as condemnation, in the rehabilitation zone in the same way it could in the revitalization zone, and could not establish payment-in-lieu-of-taxation, or PILOT, plans with potential developers.
But in addition to the tax abatement on increases of assessed value up to $25,000, the township could expedite zoning approvals.
“That’s a huge advantage for developers of projects that you like because it takes away a lot of the added expense and risk that comes with going before a land use board to get variances,” Maley said.
Also, there would be no requirement for a public hearing on the designation, he said, and no requirement to notify property owners. But the Planning Board will get a chance to comment on the proposal, and specific planning applications would still require public comment.
Maley said Galloway Township was the most recent municipality he worked with that designated the entire township in need of rehabilitation. He added the township has broad discretion over what to enact.
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For small projects, such as an addition to a home, the township could make the process automatic, and only hold a vote of the full Township Committee on large-scale proposals.
“You’ll get a lot on the residential,” Maley said, suggesting a lot of people have been home all year thinking about potential projects. Commercial properties would want to take advantage as well.
“People could come in and not even know about the program. You would just say, ‘hey, you’re getting a break on your taxes,’” Donohue said.
The committee will consider voting on a resolution to begin the process at a future meeting.