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Back to the Future: Seeds of Controversy Planted in the United Water Property

A look back at New Milford's Master Plan's from 1970 to the present; how a town transformed itself from a farming community to a bedroom community in a few hundred pages and 40 years, and how the United Water property became part of the conversation.

The potential sale of the United Water property to Hekemian, and , has changed the tone of the discourse and created a heated political climate in town.

The hearing of Hekemian's application before the zoning board has amplified the issues of New Milford's fair share housing obligation, the stress the development will cause on the already overcrowded school system, and the burden it will place on the town's infrastructure and services. But how did the town get from there to here?

Historians will tell you that the best way to determine the future is to look back to the past, and that's what this editor did--reviewed the town's master plans, re-examinations of master plans and master plan housing elements from 1970 to the most current in an effort to glimpse how the town was transformed from a farming community and the vision of planning boards past in mapping out the future of New Milford.

Laws governing municipal land use dictate that every six years a general re-examination of a municipality's master plan and development regulations must be prepared by the borough's planning board. 

This is the first in what will be a series of articles about how the decisions made by the leadership of the past has shaped New Milford's future; how those decisions have become the inheritance of the current planning board, zoning board and, ultimately, the mayor and council. 

Written into the 1970 master plan is this, "If, in the future, the Hackensack Water Company should, for any reason, abandon the filtering area adjacent to Main Street, this land should be reserved for open space purposes both to meet the need for such land and to preserve the integrity of the River. In keeping with the proposal to build a dam and improve the recreational opportunities along the Hackensack River, the undeveloped land along the river in the southwest section of the Borough should be reserved for such purposes."

And so the pervceived potential of that now hot-button property enters the conversation of New Milford. Prevalent on the mind of the planning board 42 years ago was finding opportunities to add to the borough's passive recreational land. In the preparation of the 1970 master plan the planning board was focused on meeting the nationally recommended standards of "10 acres of municipal park land per every 1000 population."

As of the completion of the 1970 master plan, the borough owned 112 acres of passive recreational land compared to the 200 acres needed to meet the nationally recommended standards of 10 acres per every 1000 residents.

However, by the time of the 1980 master plan, the borough began to see a decrease in population and shift in demographics. Whereas in 1970 the population was weighted with young families, by the time of the 1980's cencus that population had aged and the children were leaving for college, many never to return. 

The 1980's census showed for the first time that the borough's population was declining. From the 1970 census to the 1980 census the borough saw a loss of 2300 residents. This created  under-enrollment in the schools and a decrease in housing demands. 

The planning board of the late 1970's and early 1980's began to focus on undeveloped borough park lands. The recommendation was to develop these lands with needed recreational facilities designed not only to meet the needs of young adults, but the aging population as well. The goal, as stated in 1982, was non-residential development should be encouraged to the extent "that it is compatible with the protection of the adjoining residential areas."

And then the focus began to shift to increasing ratables. The 1982 re-examination plan states the borough's planning goals for non-residential development is to "to encourage non-residential ratables to strengthen the borough's tax base." 

As of 1982 the borough had a total of 1410 acres, 42 acres of undeveloped land--19 acres of which were mapped as wetlands. Also mentioned in the 1982 plan is that the 5.69 acres of county-owned land along the Hackensack River in New Milford that the county had earmarked to develop as recreational open space had been dropped. (Van Buskirk) 

In 2008 the United Water property began to undergo an environmental clean up in accordance with NJDEP guidelines and requirements.

The 2010 master plan re-examination states that when clean up is complete the planning board will make recommendations for the preservation and/or development of the property consistent with the current master plan adopted in 2004 and the "broad goals and objectives established in the 2010 re-examination report." 

In the 2008 master plan housing element and fair share plan, the United Water property is listed as a viable developable lot should it become available. It also parks the town's COAH (Council On Affordable Housing) requirement on this property if purchased. The report emphasizes COAH's new Round 3 obligations that utilize a growth share methodology to determine a municipality's fair share of affordable housing.  

In 2008, 96 percent of the borough lands were zoned residential. Of this 96 percent, 88 percent are zoned residential for single family use. The remaining 8.1 percent is reserved for townhouses, garden apartments and two-family homes. 

The 2008 master plan housing element earmarks the United Water property as land that could accomodate affordable housing units.  

The 2008 plan says, "When the subject property is ready for development, the borough should create a zoning amendment necessary to provide for low/moderate income requirements."

To be continued. 

Rosemary Fuhrman July 19, 2012 at 12:45 PM
Thank you. This series will help frame the current debate and present the whole picture for New Milford residents. Our elected officials are just that, people we chose to represent the best interests of the community. The proposed development at the United Water site is antithesis of this. Those of us who have lived through the recent floods shudder with fear about the kind of flooding that awaits us if this parcel of land is as densely developed as the plans indicate.
Ulises July 20, 2012 at 02:46 AM
Ann, thank you, great story. There's over 2,400 apartments in town and a Master Plan, which is dictitated by the Mayor and Council, suggested in 2008 we need more??? As testified by the developer's COAH expert witness a few months ago, concerning the UW property by the HS, New Milford is in compliance with COAH today. That's exactly what he said on the record when I asked him at a Zoning Board meeting. The second you start to develop that's when we need to comply with COAH. We don't need more development along the Hackensack River and United Water said it last year; overdevelopment is to blame for most of the recent floodings. Therefore, for the sake of the town's future, Mayor Subrizi, keep this land as open space. Let SOD's environmental friends buy this land, at no cost to the town, and preserve this land for the sake of the town. If not, you'll be a one term mayor because it'll clearly send a message that you don't care about what most people in town want. Come election time, they'll be more SOD signs on voter's lawn than signs for those running for office and you and some members of the Council are turning your back on them and they won't forget your actions when it's time to vote. SOD!
Ulises July 21, 2012 at 01:09 AM
The Mayor and Council spend $5K (tax payers' money!) on a new rezoing report (see above, I just uploaded it) of the Suez/United Water property by the high school. They could have just voted to pass a resolution keeping this land as open space at no cost to the tax payers...??? Please attend the Mayor and Council meeting on Monday July 23rd, at 6:30 PM and tell them what you think this property should be zoned as. Stop-Over-Development! Join us at SODNOW@yahoo.com to find out how we're trying to stop our Mayor and Council from changing this town forever. SOD!
Denise July 21, 2012 at 08:35 PM
In this weeks Tri Boro news, Mayor Ann Subrizi states the only way to stop overdevelopement is have people stop moving into NM. Would she rather have a glut of abandoned houses which is already happening and is quite disturbing......
Michelle July 23, 2012 at 03:54 AM
Awesome article Ann!! What a community-oriented thing to do. A great idea, a lot of time and effort -- thank you for going the extra mile and giving us this excellent perspective. SOD!

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