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Open Space Development

Cost of Development  |  Development Process

The Cost of Development

Development creates both "profits" and "losses" for Hamilton and its citizens. All too often, the profits are touted and the losses are ignored. Hamilton needs to systematically and openly evaluate each development application and make a decision based on real data. This isn't a new idea. One of the most noted authorities in the field is Robert Burchell of Rutgers.

Profits and Losses
Photo of cat in a fieldProfits are the property taxes the township realizes when new houses, offices, stores, etc. are built. They're easy to quantify. Simply apply the tax rate to the assessed value of the new property, and the result is a specific dollar amount. Job creation is another profit. Additional services and availability of goods may be beneficial (or they may be redundant).

Losses are no less real, but some are harder to quantify. The cost of educating school children that move into new houses is often cited. Development creates the need for more infrastructure and public services. We need more police and fire personnel and all the support they require like equipment and vehicles. Some costs are not obvious and come in small increments. Examples include more municipal employee overtime, or township cars that need servicing or replacing more frequently due to heavier use. Development generates traffic, which means roads wear out faster and need repairs more often. Our water treatment and sewer systems are similarly affected. More traffic means more accidents, which brings about higher insurance rates.

Quality of Life
Development affects the so-called quality of life issues. A major one is traffic. Delays, road rage, stress, longer trip times, danger to pedestrians -- all seem to increase daily. There's also air, noise and light pollution. Development causes the loss of natural habitat for animals. We lose the sense of peace and serenity that woods, fields and farms engender in us.

Is More Better?
Currently, development decisions are made without a full understanding and public airing of the profits and losses they will create. There is no law or ordinance that requires developers or government to create and make public a full accounting of both positive and negative aspects - the profits and losses - of a development application. Until that's done, no one really knows whether "more" is better…or worse.

Photo of a forestSave Hamilton Open Space believes that just such a full and public accounting of both sides of the profit and loss ledger should be made for every large development, and if the loss is greater than the profit, then the development should either not occur at all, be delayed, or the developer should pay a fair share of the township costs associated with the development.

Some of these issues can be addressed only at the state level. However, Hamilton can and should move forward where possible. A good start would be to explore the possibility of creating an ordinance that would require developers to produce a "profit and loss impact study" as part of an application. (This is not a new idea. One authority in the field is Robert Burchell from Rutgers who has done research and published numerous books on the subject.)

Development Cost Examples

Three Former Farms - In Hamilton Township, the housing developments already approved on the former Shisler, Skeba and Dey Farms on Sawmill Rd. and Old York Rd. will bring 112 new single family houses to Hamilton. Assume for this example that the average assessed value is $500,000. That will generate $946,400 in annual school taxes at the current rate of $1.69. The annual cost to educate two children per house ($8,700 per child x 224 children) is $1,948,800. The result is an annual shortfall of $1,002,400.

Photo of a farmA Saved Farm - If the Braghelli Farm had not been purchased by Hamilton (using a combination of township, county, state and private funds) as an addition to Veterans Park, it would have become a housing development with approximately 120 houses on it. Using the same assumptions in the Three Former Farms example above, the annual school tax revenue would be $1,014,000. With two children per house, the annual school cost would be $2,088,000. The annual deficit would be $1,074,000. Hamilton's annual cost to buy the property is approximately $275,000 for 20 years. In this case it costs taxpayers $799,000 less per year to buy the land that to develop it. Also, once the land is paid for, the payments end. If developed, the houses would incur school costs as long as school age children occupy them.

A Washington Township Example - In Washington Township, zoning in 1994 would have allowed 300 housing units on a 720-acre tract. Estimated tax revenue from new houses would be $651,000 annually. Estimated education costs would be $1,670,400, yielding an annual deficit of $1,018,800. The cost of buying the development rights was $10.4 million. The investment would be offset in less than 15 years. The savings in service costs would continue indefinitely. (Source: Stony Brook - Millstone Watershed Association).

A Mansfield Township Example - In Mansfield Township, for $1.00 of residential tax revenue, $1.48 is spent on services. For $1.00 of farmland tax revenue, $0.27 is spent on services. (Source: Stony Brook - Millstone Watershed Association).

The Development Process

Below is a very general outline of the process developers follow in Hamilton. This outline is meant to provide a general sense of interaction between developers, government and citizens. The process, and the time it takes, can vary widely depending on the size and type of development.

Points where the public is notified or may intervene are noted. Public notification is given in local newspapers in the Public Notices section and must be done a specific number of days prior to public meetings. For example, Planning Board notices must be advertised at least ten days prior to the meeting. Also, Hamilton publishes meeting agendas on its web site, All types of public notices from around the state are uploaded from participating newspapers ( including the Trenton Times) and are posted on the New Jersey Press Association web site.

Photo of a tree in a fieldPre-plan - Developers may meet with local government officials - the mayor, economic development director, planning department, etc. - to discuss a concept or plan.

Zoning - Each development must conform to Hamilton's zoning requirements. If not, variances or waivers may be sought by developers from the Zoning Board. An example of a "use variance" is when a plot of land is zoned for residential use, and the developer wants to build a commercial building on it. Zoning Board meetings are public and are held the second Tuesday of each month at the Municipal Building, 2090 Greenwood Ave. Public notification is required. On the other hand, a permanent change to a zone requires action by the Municipal Council, Planning Board and Mayor.

Zone definitions
All land is zoned for some type of development. No land is zoned for "preservation" or "parkland" or "forest", etc. Hamilton has about 23 zoning districts. They vary from single family residential, to highway commercial, to manufacturing, to conservation (which still permits development), and more. All are listed on Hamilton's web site. Hamilton also publishes a zoning map.

The Plan is Filed - The developer creates a formal plan to build housing, retail, offices, etc. on a parcel of land and files it with Hamilton's Department of Planning, Engineering, and Inspections. When a plan is filed, it becomes public information, but there is no requirement to notify the public that it has been filed.

Planning Dept Review - The Department of Planning, Engineering, and Inspections reviews the plan to ensure that it meets township zoning requirements, local ordinances, and NJ Municipal Land Use Law requirements. This step can be very quickly or can last for several months or longer. The developer may meet with the Department to review and revise the plan. Once the plan is deemed "complete" by the Department of Planning, Engineering, and Inspections, it is sent to the Hamilton Environmental Commission for review.

Environmental Commission Review - The Environmental Commission comments on any environmental issues. Examples are the presence of wetlands, whether the Phase II Stormwater Management rules apply, or whether Hamilton's tree replacement ordinance applies, etc. The commission's comments become part of the application. Hamilton's wetlands map is used to determine the possible presence of wetlands. The developer may be required to get a Letter of Interpretation (LOI) from the NJ Dept of Environmental Protection. The LOI delineates the exact extent and type of wetlands. Residents within 200 feet of the development are notified that an LOI is being sought and may comment to the DEP. The extent and type of wetlands directly affect the extent of permitted construction.

Planning Board Public Notice - The application is scheduled to be heard by the Planning Board. The Planning Board meeting is a public meeting, and a notice must be posted at least ten days prior to hearing an application. Notices are in the Trenton Times, on the NJ Press Association web site, and are usually posted on Hamilton's web site.

Photo of a fieldPlanning Board - The developer, along with its engineers, architects, traffic consultants, etc., gives sworn testimony before the Board. Typically the developer's lawyer organizes this presentation. Members of the Township's Department of Planning, Engineering, and Inspections Department also testify before the Board. The Township may hire its own consultants, too. The public may make comments and may question the Board and anyone who has testified. The Board determines whether the application conforms to the various laws and ordinances that govern development. The developer may be asked to make changes and return for additional testimony. The Board must take action (vote) on an application within a specified number of days from the first hearing. (The "take action deadline" is published on the agenda.)

Developers can ask the Board to grant variances and waivers. Setback distances, impervious surface coverage maximums, and flood plain relief, are common ones.

The Board can approve an application, approve it subject to the developer meeting certain conditions, or deny it.

Preliminary approval is granted first, then final approval. Often developers ask for both preliminary and final approval at one meeting.

Memorialization - This is the formal adoption by the Board of their decision. Memorialization votes usually occur at the next Planning Board meeting following final action of the application. No testimony or comment is heard. Memorializations are published in the Public Notices section of local newspapers.

State and County approvals - Very often state and county agencies are required to approve aspects of development. The Dept of Environmental Protection, the Mercer County Planning Board and the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District are examples. The presence and type of wetlands and stream encroachment permits are commonly addressed by these agencies.

Appeal - Planning Board decisions can be appealed by filing a lawsuit against the Board. A Superior Court judge (usually Linda Feinberg) reviews the proceedings and exhibits of the Board meeting(s) and decides if the Board acted legally. No new testimony or evidence can be submitted as part of the appeal process. For example, in Feb 2005, Judge Feinberg decided against Hamilton's Planning Board and in favor of Levin Properties. She overturned the Planning Board's denial of Levin's application to build a shopping center. There are two additional legal steps that can be taken. The Superior Court's decision can be appealed. The NJ Appellate Court hears those cases. The final step is to submit the case the NJ Supreme Court.

What You Should Know About How The Process Works

Photo of a fieldWho is the Planning Board?

The Planning Board has nine members, all appointed by the Mayor. They are listed on Hamilton's web site. The Mayor or his designee may sit on the board, too, but in Hamilton that rarely happens. The Board approves or denies applications to build houses, shopping centers, stores, etc. - all development applications that do not request a zoning variance go before the Planning Board. Board members are unpaid, and are meant to represent the community. They need not be professional planners, engineers, etc. Terms are usually four years with varying expiration dates. An attorney represents the Board and is present at all meetings. The Board meets the second and fourth Thursday of each month starting at 7pm in the Hamilton Municipal Building, 2090 Greenwood Ave. Agendas are posted on Hamilton's web site under Meetings and Notices.

Approving and Denying Applications
Very few applications are denied by the Board. To gain approval, developers are required only to meet specific minimum standards. If they do so, the Board approves the application. The Board must have a valid legal reason(s) to deny an application. If not, the developer often will sue to overturn the denial…and win.

Many common sense issues cannot be used by the Board to deny an application. Some of these are the impact on traffic in surrounding neighborhoods, the impact on schools that a residential development will bring, and generally the health, safety, and welfare of the community. None of these issues can be used by the Board to deny an application due to the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL).

Public Influence
The public's best opportunity to influence a development is before the plan is presented to the Planning Board. That's because most of the developer's work of meeting standards and designing a plan that is acceptable to the Department of Engineering, Planning and Inspections and the Planning Board is done before they present the plan to the Planning Board. Note that public notice is required only ten days before the Planning Board meets.

The Zoning Board and Environmental Commission

Photo of a deer in the field The Zoning Board
The Zoning Board of Adjustment hears only those applications where a zoning variance or waiver is sought, i.e. if someone wants to build something not permitted in a certain type of zone. The Board may grant or deny waivers or variances. Zoning Board members are appointed by the Mayor for varying lengths of time and are listed on Hamilton's web site. Like the Planning Board, the members are unpaid and are meant to represent the community. Members are not required to be experts in the areas of zoning, land use, law, etc. An attorney represents the Board and is present at all meetings. The Zoning Board meets the second Tuesday of each month at the Municipal Building at 2090 Greenwood Ave. Notices of meetings are posted in local newspapers and are posted on Hamilton's web site.

Zoning Board meetings are open to the public. The public may make comments and ask questions about each application the Board hears.

The Environmental Commission
The Environmental Commission serves only as an advisory panel. Members are appointed by the Mayor and are listed on Hamilton's web site. Commission members are unpaid and are meant to represent the community. Members are not required to be experts in the areas of environmental science, land use, law, etc. No attorney represents the Commission. The Environmental Commission meets the second Wednesday of each month at the Public Works Service Center, 240 Tampa Ave. Hamilton posts the agenda on its web site.

Save Hamilton Open Space P.O. Box 2594, Hamilton, NJ 08690 | 609-273-9173 |
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