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Council Passes Ban On New Warehouse Development

Attorney Francis Linnus led the charge of lawyers speaking against the proposed ordinance amendments.

Amendments to the Township’s land development ordinance that remove warehouses as permitted uses were unanimously approved January 24 by the Township Council.

The vote came after nearly an hour of comment from residents as well as attorneys representing developers with property in the Township.

The ban comes about six months after the Council passed amendments to the Land Development ordinance that just restricted where warehouses could be built. Those amendments spurred nine law suits, all of which are still pending.

The Council took both actions after months of lobbying by a Canal Walk-based citizens group angered by a pending proposal to build two large warehouses near their development.

The new ordinance amendments basically remove warehouses as a permitted use in the Business and Industry Zone, and remove all requirements for warehouses in that zone. A developer wishing to build a warehouse in the township would have to apply for a use variance to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

On January 24, the Council heard from five attorneys – four of whom represent developers who own property in the Township, and one of whom said he does not – about the ways in which the proposed ordinance, the Planning Board’s Master Plan consistency hearing on the proposed ordinance, and the January 24 hearing itself, were invalid or illegal.

The reasons given, which included claims that the legal notice for the January 24 meeting was improper, the property owners were not included in the decision-making process, and that there were no studies done to support the amendments, drew a slight rebuke from township attorney Lou Rainone, who suggested that his “land use attorney” colleagues should learn the difference between a Zoning Board hearing and a final vote on an ordinance.

Francis Linnus, an attorney who represents Northern Nurseries on Elizabeth Avenue, told the Council that it ought to “take a step back.”

“It’s OK to listen to the public, that’s what you’re here for, but you have to listen to all the public,” he said. “This particular ordinance is not sound policy.”

Another attorney representing a township developer, George Chadwick, said the amendments would have a negative impact on the Township’s tax base.

Warehouses, he said, were seen as the antidote to the failing office space market.

“They may not be the perfect solution, but to simply take an axe and cut it out, without really thinking about what the ramifications are to the fiscal condition of the community in my judgment is not long-range planning,” he said. “It’s reaction to public interest in terms of what they think needs to be done.”

Attorney Rob Simon, who said he represents seven developers who own eight properties in town, said the ordinance will “have a significant adverse effect on each of my client’s property rights, their property values, their multi-million-dollar investments in their properties, after investing that money in reliance on existing zoning that is to be removed.”

“Proceeding this way is not demonstrating integrity, it is illegal and we contend that the ordinance should not be passed,” he said. “I don’t think you are following the Municipal Land Use Law, and I think that will be a fatal defect.”

Joshua Koodray, an attorney who represents Heller Industries, noted that his client helped create the Franklin Community Foundation, which in turn helped to build the Senior/Community Center.

“Heller’s commitment to the community is being repaid with yet another attempt to destroy its property rights,” he said. “The town has unquestionably failed to provide Heller … with any opportunity to participate in this process. The Master Plan process has been rushed and is fatally flawed. There’s been no studies to quantify this drastic action that’s been taken.”

Township resident Steve Finkelstein, an attorney who does not represent a developer, drew the ire of the crowd with some of his comments opposing the ordinance.

“I’m appalled that this Council is taking this action on such a summary, flimsy pretext of residents who are only recently residents in this town, who are complaining that based on their observations alone that warehousing, and the commerce they will generate for this town, will be detrimental to the town and to them,” he said.

“My point here is that each of you should be doing research on this, on the taxpayer, ratables in this town are declining; warehousing use in this town would be a boon to many of our vacant properties,” he said.

Responding to some audience members chuckling at his assertions, Finkelstein said, “These people are going to realize sooner or later that when their tax bills go up, they’ve made a grave mistake and they can no longer afford to live in their houses.”

“I don’t want to pay any higher taxes because of some short-sighted policy driven by nothing more than the concerns of short-term residents,” he said.

That last comment drew loud boos from the crowd, some of whom yelled at Finkelstein to sit down.

His next comment didn’t help matters, and was met with louder boos

“If you’re going to do this, do this as elected officials with some fair consideration, look at the facts, get the data, if the data supports a ban, so be it,” he said. “But do your homework, don’t just have a knee-jerk reaction to 200 senior citizens showing up at your door.

Other township residents spoke in favor of the ban.

Dave Robinson of Somerset Run asked when “enough is enough” when it comes to warehouses in Franklin.

Lynne O’Carroll said that when the warehouses are vacant, the township will be stuck with teh decision of what to do with them.

Her sentiment was echoed by Michael Brien.

“When buildings become vacant, it becomes a liability on the town,” he said. “They have to support all of the problems that go on while the investors are sitting somewhere else.”

Michael Kovacs said that his quality of life has diminished since the Township has been built up.

Rainone drew cheers from the audience when, in responding to the attorneys’ claims that they had no opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, he said, “If you want input into decisions that are made by Council, there are a couple things you can do. First, you can come to Council meetings and you can speak, you have a right to do that. The second thing you can do is, in all due respect to my colleagues on the bar, you can move here, and run for the Council … or you can move here and get appointed to the Planning Board.”

“We have public hearings, we have Planning Board meetings and Council meetings, and everybody has a right to come here and be heard,” he said.

On the argument that banning warehouses will have a negative effect on the town’s ratable base, Rainone said, “there are about 20 municipalities in the state … that have $10 billion or more in ratable bases. Guess what Franklin’s is … $12 billion. It is larger than Elizabeth, it’s larger than Woodbridge.”

“When people talk about it’s going to crush the ratable base of Franklin, think about the fact that Woodbridge has 40 percent more people than Franklin has, and the same amount of ratables,” he said.

After the meeting, Rainone said the newly passed amendments would effectively rescind the amendments passed in July, upon which the nine lawsuits are based.

He said he believed that the developers, if they chose to contest the Council’s latest action, would have to file new suits.

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