OLD BRIDGE – The Planning Board has agreed that 50 properties at the intersection of Route 35 and Laurence Parkway in the Laurence Harbor section be designated as a redevelopment area.
The vote came after the Board assured residents that the township would not use its powers of eminent domain to acquire the properties.
"We will not be taking anybody's property," Township Planner Veena Sawant said. "That's not the township's policy. Every plan that has been written in the last 20 years has been just for redevelopment. There is no plan in place. This is a first, baby step. It's a long and lengthy process."
"If the municipality wanted to utilize eminent domain or condemnation for this or any of the other redevelopment, it has to do so right from the start," Planning Board attorney Joseph Sordillo said. "In this case, it can't happen. It just can't happen unless this whole process starts from the beginning all over again and everyone will be given notice of that fact."
The redevelopment designation does not include any recommendations for specific development. That will happen later in the drafting of a redevelopment plan by the Planning Board and Township Council with public input.
The properties in the redevelopment area include several single-family homes at least 70 years old, as well as the Laurence Harbor Post Office, Laurence Harbor First Aid Squad, Hoffman Pharmacy, Lisa Restaurant, Harbor Liquors, Krauszer's, Dunkin’, a vacant bank and a strip mall with a high vacancy.
The redevelopment study was prompted by underutilized and vacant parcels, vacant stores and the area’s proximity to the Laurence Harbor waterfront and community facilities.
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The area consists of 25 residential lots, 13 commercial lots, five public lots, one church, four vacant lots, and two other tax-exempt parcels.
In 2020, the Council authorized the Planning Board to undertake a study, Sawant said.
Sawant said she believes the residents living there will benefit from the designation, including the opportunity to apply for a short-term tax exemption.
The state's Five-Year Exemption and Abatement Law authorizes municipalities to grant short-term tax abatements and exemptions for home improvements, commercial and industrial improvements, and the improvement or conversion of multiple dwellings in redevelopment areas.
But, she said, the township is not going to force property owners to do anything.
In addition, she said, "just by the designation, your property value goes up and that has been historically true."
Two gas stations in the area are brownfield sites that need to be cleaned up, Sawant said, and the old post office building needs rehabilitation.
There also are a few homes with driveways forcing residents to back out onto Route 35. "It's a dangerous location," she said.
The area is bounded by Laurence Harbor Beach to the north, McKinley Avenue and Morningside Avenue to the east, Ravine Avenue and Sunset Avenue to the south and Lakeview Road and the Harbor Plaza strip mall to the west.
Several residents spoke at the meeting and expressed concerns about pedestrian safety and traffic.
Those concerns will be addressed in the drafting of the redevelopment plan, Sawant said.
Another resident said she heard a rumor that condos were coming. Sawant said she, too, heard the rumors.
"The administration, myself, we have not come across any concept, any developer who has approached us to do that," she said. "Those are rumors. There is no plan in place. Today the comments you're making are well received. When we work on the plan those comments will be very helpful to us. So your voice is definitely going to be heard, but when we write the redevelopment plan."
The owner of a vacant property behind Dunkin' said his property is "underutilized" and is something that can benefit from being in a redevelopment area.
"We certainly look forward to participating if this were to go forward," he said.
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Susan Loyer covers Middlesex County and more for MyCentralJersey.com. To get unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.