134 Home Proposal In Far Hills Faces Hurdles

July 8, 2021

FAR HILLS – Despite having court approval, a proposal for an “inclusionary” development of 134 townhouses and apartments off Route 202, opposite the Lake Road intersection, faces extensive regulatory reviews.

That became clear during opening testimony at a virtual Land Use Board meeting on Monday, July 5, as project engineer Ron Kennedy spent more than two hours discussing site plan details ranging from land topography to infrastructure.

Among the issues were planned disturbances within the stream corridor as defined by the state and borough; the disturbance of steep slopes; drainage plans that are regulated by the state and borough; and plans to install a package sewer plant.

With reports by the board’s consultants raising numerous questions, the board agreed that its consultants should meet with the applicant’s experts in private to pare down the questions and make the board’s review more manageable.

Those conferences are expected to occur before the board’s next virtual hearing, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 2.

Meanwhile, the plans drew pointed questions from a handful of local residents.

Charles Schwester of Lake Road maintained that the defined stream corridor “affects about 20 percent of this project” and that any relief needs to be justified.

The project, sought by Pulte Homes of N.J., would include 29 income-restricted units to help the borough meet its state-mandated “Round III” affordable housing obligation through 2025.

Pulte is seeking site plan, subdivision and variance approvals to develop the 42-acre Errico Acres tract on Route 202 opposite Lake Road. It is doing so in partnership with Gladstone-based Melillo Equities.

The Borough Council was pressured by a court to rezone the site in December 2019 to allow multi-family housing. While the Planning Board can seek modifications to the proposal, a denial could lead the courts to deem the borough in violation of its affordable housing obligation.

Billed as “The Residences at Overleigh,” the project calls for 105 market-priced, for-sale townhouses that would be spread among a network of roads, plus 29 income-restricted rental apartments that would be in a single building.

All 105 townhouses and four of the 29 apartments would be restricted to residents age 55 and older.

‘To Fit In’

James Mullen, director of land entitlements for Pulte’s Northeast Quarter Division, provided an overview of the project.

The townhouses will be designed in a way “to fit in with the community,” he told the board. He said the apartment building will be owned and managed by Melillo Equities.

If all government approvals are obtained by early 2022, construction would start that year and trigger “probably a three-year build-out,” he said.

In response to questions from the board and residents, Mullen said the townhouses would not resemble Pulte’s Creekside in Flemington or Del Webb in Florham Park.

Schwester asked about borough officials’ “promise” that the townhouses would sell for $800,000 to $1 million and if Pulte had committed to that in writing.

Mullen said Pulte would seek “whatever the market would bear,” which he believed would start at $800,000.

Schwester voiced dissatisfaction. He said the borough committed to paying Pulte compensation in exchange for imposing the age restriction.

Jon Sobel of Spring Hollow Road said he believed the state housing advocate Fair Share frowns upon separating market-priced homes from income-restricted homes.

Mullen said he didn’t view them as separated. “They will be compatible with each other and work well in the same community,” he said.

The hearing format, in which residents can only pose questions of witnesses and can’t voice an opinion until after all testimony is complete, drew objections from two residents.

Dr. George Mellendick of Lake Road said to stuff comments at the end “is totally unacceptable.’’

Schwester, after being stopped from getting into a give-and-take with Mullen, accused Board Attorney Peter Henry of “violating my Constitutional right to have this spirited debate.”

Site Conditions

Kennedy, the project engineer, went on to testify about property conditions.

The tract was once part of a much larger farm and includes seven residential units in barns and ancillary structures, he said. All would be removed.

The site slopes downward to the south, dropping from an elevation of 280 feet at Route 202 to 180 feet at the rear along the NJ Transit railroad tracks, Kennedy said.

There are numerous slopes but some, along Route 202 and around the barns, are man-made, he said.

The plans call for numerous retaining walls throughout the site, with many exceeding four feet in height.

With the Mine Brook flowing near the site’s southern boundary and having a tributary running into the tract, wetlands, a riparian buffer zone and a stream corridor – all regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) – lie within the property, he told the board.

Also in the mix is a borough ordinance on stream corridors, he said.

As for the view from Route 202, the nearest homes would be 325 feet from the highway and screened by existing trees and supplemental plantings, Kennedy said. That distance includes a 25-foot highway right-of-way, a 200-foot “scenic setback” and a 100-foot front yard setback for buildings, he said.

Entrance from Route 202 would be via a boulevard that would consist of one-way road in and a one-way road out, separated by a 14-foot-wide grass easement, he said.

He noted that the access would be about 350 feet east of Lake Road.

There are no plans to give the highway a left turn lane or a deceleration lane into the development but the curb would “flare out,” he said.

The project would have 23, two-and-a-half story townhouse buildings, each with four to five townhouses. Each townhouse would have four bedrooms, according to the application.

Board Vice Chairman Rick Rinzler asked why an older couple would need four bedrooms if their children are no longer living with them. Kennedy replied that each townhouse would have three bedrooms with an option for a fourth.

Thirty-four of the townhouses would need a variance to have a height of 38.8 feet as opposed to the zoning ordinance limit of 36 feet. Kennedy said the 34 townhouses would have a walkout basement that would cause their height to be measured differently but their roof would be no higher.

The affordable housing building would be built on a slope and would have two stories in the front and three in the rear facing a parking lot, he said.

The project would have 479 total parking spaces. The townhouse development would have 421 consisting of garage, driveway and common visitor spaces. The apartment development would have 58 surface parking spaces.

With respect to drainage, Kennedy said runoff currently flows through two railroad crossings to the Mine Brook and is not detained. That would change under the plans.

The plans call for 14 small detention basins that, under DEP rules, must reduce the peak rate of water runoff, treat it and infiltrate it gradually into the ground, Kennedy said. He noted that the rules were updated in 2020 to require “green” infrastructure.

“It’s quite involved” and “will require a thorough DEP review,” he said.

The drainage plans also require a variance to allow an 85-foot-wide-by 400-foot-long recharge area within the Route 202 scenic buffer.

The development would also have a package sewer plant. That was sought by borough officials, who feared that extending the sewer line east from the village would open more land to development.

Kennedy said having a package plant will require Somerset County and the DEP to amend the wastewater management plan for Far Hills. He said a related state permit would probably take six to nine months to obtain.

With respect to water service, Kennedy said Pulte would build a water line that would run west on Route 202 to connect with an existing line at Sunnybranch Road.

In addition, a new line that runs down Liberty Corner Road to Layton Road would be extended to Douglas Road and The Hills development to provide “a more constant flow,” he said.

Craig Gianetti, attorney for the applicant, told the board he would present additional testimony from the project architect, a traffic consultant and a professional planner.

Gianetti said that while he expects the architect to testify at the Aug. 2 hearing, there will likely be a need for a third hearing.

Schwester asked the board when it would return to having in-person meetings. “I can’t hear half of the testimony,” he said.

Mayor Paul Vallone said the goal is to make the move in the latter part of September.