Sunday, November 11, 2007

Addicted to Money in Aberdeen

This November 28th, Aberdeen’s Zoning Board will be hearing two variance requests from Centex Homes, LLC. The Zoning Board Engineer called both requests “intense” devlopments. The agency hired to review the submissions, characterized them as rezoning proposals under the guise of variance requests that would “substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan and zoning ordinance.” The public opposes the plans because of traffic congestion and adversely affecting our school system and property taxes. Yet, despite the universal opposition to these developments, everyone is afraid they might garner town approval. Why? Because Aberdeen has a history of choosing private money over the public interest.

Centex is proposing to build 62 townhouses on Rt. 34 and 120 age-restricted units on County Road about a block from Rt. 35. The variance requests were reviewed by Coppola & Coppola Associates. In 2006, Coppola & Coppola, based in Princeton Junction, donated $300 to the Aberdeen Democratic Party. That same year, Aberdeen awarded them $98,246 in land use consulting services.

Timothy Gillen, the Zoning Board Engineer who reviewed the requests, is a paid consultant from CME Associates. In 2006, CME, located in Parlin, donated $7,800 to the Aberdeen Democratic Party and, that same year, won $413,470 in engineering and consulting services from the township.

Meanwhile, the township has been taking money from developers in the form of PILOT programs (Payments In Lieu Of Taxes). Through PILOT programs, the developer negotiates a payment schedule in exchange for a multi-year property tax waiver. The developer benefits from a “tax break” while the town can request a substantial up-front deposit.

These PILOT programs have led to one of the state’s highest growth rates for a developed municipality. From 2000-2006, Aberdeen’s population grew 44% faster than the State of New Jersey. (That number jumps to 59% if you include the town’s increased liability to produce state-mandated affordable housing.)

However, the town is likely to reject Centex’s request for the simple reason that Centex probably lacks the financing to develop the properties. In October, Centex Homes had their bond rating dropped to junk status, meaning they will no longer be able to finance their projects through normal channels. No money means no PILOT program means no reason to grant approval.

But residents shouldn’t become too excited. SK Properties has taken over the Aberdeen Forge project in Freneau. The “K” in SK Properties stands for Murray Kushner, elder brother to Charles Kushner, and a major donor to the state’s Democratic Party. (Hat tip to Paul Rinear for the lead.) Kushner is renegotiating both zoning and PILOT program incentives with the township. Not only does he have the money to develop but he’s also in a strong bargaining position.

Concerned about the November elections, the all Democrat town council voted to forgo property hikes and, instead, blew through the town’s surplus. (There’s also strong suspicion they intentionally postponed the Centex variance request to take place after the election as well.) But the town council is now facing a quadruple whammy – lost revenue from forgoing a tax hike, lost revenue from interest on the now-depleted surplus, a state mandate limiting next year’s tax hike to 4%, and the likelihood that developers like Centex won’t be able to secure financing.

The township chose financial gimmickry to secure an election and will now need to face Murray Kushner from a severely weakened position. Word on the street is Mayor David Sobel will not be running for re-election. That’s probably for the best.
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