Lambertville, N.J., officials moved one step closer to making it possible to sell its police headquarters building.
The planning board voted 5 to 3 on Wednesday, March 4 to reverse a commitment to condemn the old Lambertville High School property as part of a plan to address its affordable housing obligations.
The controversial measure, which nearly 200 residents witnessed, clears the way for a March 19 city council vote.
“The city is no longer required to purchase [the school],” planning board Attorney Timothy Korzun said prior to the vote.
Residents and several members of the planning board questioned the sudden urgency and wisdom of reversing course, as well as including the police station in the revised plan.
Planning board member Gina Fischetti said there was “no actual requirement or deadline that this has to happen.”
But in order for the city to walk away from a previous agreement with Fair Share Housing Center, the designated organization that facilitates agreements with New Jersey’s municipalities, the city’s police department building at Lambertville’s north end became part of an amended settlement agreement first forged in 2018, according to city officials.
“It’s a done deal,” resident Paul Stevens said of the revision. “The settlement agreement was already signed.”
Korzun explained there was a “tough negotiation” with the Fair Share Housing ConCenter to amend the agreement. City officials feared sudden resolution to the condemnation lawsuit, which would require an untimely expense.
“We would be subject to condemnation proceedings,” Mayor Fahl said. The cost of the condemnation would cost “millions of dollars ... The city would be subject to paying market value [for the high school property] within 90 days.”
“It’s critical for this vote to happen tonight,” Korzun said.
“This was the best alternative we could find without having to condemn the high school site,” Fahl said of including the 1.6 acre police property in the affordable housing plan.
City planner Emily Goldman characterized the police site as “realistic” for a development with 5 affordable housing units. Goldman said that 28 housing units need to be created citywide within five years but that the city is not currently in discussions with a developer.
City officials said that although the police site is a suitable one to sell and have redeveloped, it doesn’t mean it has been chosen. Redeveloping “the police station is a tool by which to hit [the affordable housing] number,” Mayor Fahl said.
At this time, they say they don’t know where the police department will go, but that the relocation process has to start.
Fahl said the city is “negotiating a shared services agreement with West Amwell Township” to use its old police department.
She assured residents that the city will make sure there is a “smooth transition” and that “patrolmen will be in town and there will be no disruption in service.” Moving the police department is temporary and it would “still primarily operate out of Lambertville,” Fahl said.
Before the police site could be sold, Goldman said there would be an “Area in Need of Development” study and a public hearing would need to be held before designating that property as such.
Goldman said the police building is in poor shape. “The walls are literally separating from the floor.”
Resident Dave Ringer said the environmental restrictions on the site would prevent the city from building the development on that site.
“You can’t build what you want there. I can tell you that,” Ringer said.
Planning board member John Miller wondered what the impact would be if the vote was postponed.
“The answer is, you really wouldn’t want to find out,” Korzun said, adding that the city would be exposed to Builder’s Remedy lawsuits. Builder’s Remedy is when a developer sues to force municipalities to allow multi-family dwellings with a percentage designated for affordable housing.
“The judge wants to see we’re making progress.” Korzun said.
City council will have a public hearing March 19 before voting to amend its redevelopment plan for the Lambertville High School redevelopment area.
“The questions you want answered will be answered during the public hearing,” Korzun said.
Fahl acknowledged there has not been enough community input. “So we’re working on ways to make that happen,” she said. The mayor said that there would be public charettes or “a public visioning process” and a community redevelopment advisory board to help keep residents involved in the process.