Now that the Zoning Board is considering the question of whether Hekemian's revised application constitutes a new application, causing the case to be heard from the beginning, the question of the fate of the property is foremost on minds of residents.
Much of the contention surrounds Mayor Ann Subrizi's recommendation that the council rezone the property for a less intensive use during the May work session of the Mayor and Council.
It is SOD's position that the town purchase the land, if or when it becomes available, and keep it green. Through petition, protest march, letters to the editor and appearances at work sessions and public meetings, SOD has pushed the Mayor and Council to let the fate of the property run its course through the Zoning Board before considering rezoning.
As she has stated publicly, Subrizi's position is that to not rezone the property, and allow the application to run its course through the Zoning Board, is "too big of a gamble" for the borough.
Addressing accusations made that this position suggests that she has "made deals" with the developer, Mayor Subrizi said that she has never made any deals with anyone involved in the current purchase of the United Water property.
"I don't care if Hekemian and Inserra lose money or make money," she said. "My only concern is that New Milford retains the power to control what goes or doesn't go on that property, and not be subject to a judge's determination."
Subrizi said that her motivation for rezoning is COAH driven and cited Cranford as an example of what could potentially happen to New Milford. Like New Milford, Hekemian put forth an application for a large development to be constructed on flood prone property. Hekemian's Cranford application includes 360 apartment units and a five-story parking garage. 60 of the units fulfill Cranford's COAH requirements. The matter went to court and Hekemian won on the basis of "builder's remedy" although the decision is being appealed by the township.
A “Builder’s Remedy Lawsuit” is a legal action taken by a developer in an attempt to force a municipality to permit construction of a large, multi-family housing structure or complex that includes affordable housing units citing the Mount Laurel decision, a landmark case that holds municipalities responsible for providing affordable housing to low and moderate income households.
Subrizi said that because a previous administration parked the town's entire COAH obligation on the United Water property, it is COAH that is going to drive the success of the proposed development since it is the crux of their argument.
Subrizi wants to clarify the record regarding available grant money when the United Water property was available for purchase. Despite all that has been said by members of SOD at public meetings and on Patch, she said when the town considered purchasing the property there was no guarantee that grant money was available for the purchase.
SOD has put forth that New Milford's bond writer, Marlene Casey, said that there were grants available for the purchase of the property in early 2011. Although, according to members of SOD, Casey said that the town would have had to finance the property through bonds before any grant money was realized.
Subrizi said that at the same time that the United Water property was available for purchase the town had inquired about securing grants for the $1.6 million Hirschfeld Brook flood mitigation project, but was advised by Casey that the grant money available had a short time frame and was required to be spent as quickly as possible.
"You know what we got in grants for Hirschfeld?" Subrizi asked. "Nothing. Zero."
She questioned that if there were grants available for the purchase of the United Property at that time, then why did the town get nothing for the Hirschfeld flood mitigation project?
Subrizi stressed that the only ones who could have guaranteed the money to purchase the property were the taxpayers of New Milford. "And you have to add that $8 million figure to the $1.6 million for the Hirschfeld Brook flood mitigation project," she said.
"The only guarantee we had in early 2011 was that if we purchased the United Water property the taxpayers of New Milford would be the ones paying for it," she said.
Subrizi also questioned SOD's calculations of what it would have cost to bond for the estimated $8 million purchase. According to members of SOD, Casey reportedly told them that had those bonds been purchased in 2011, the interest would have been no more than 1.5 percent--approximately $5000.
Subrizi questioned that calculation."1.5 percent of $8 million is $120,000," she said. "I'm not sure how the $5000 interest amount was arrived at."
According to the March 14, 2011 council meeting minutes, when asked by Councilman Howard Berner if grants were available through Open Space to purchase the United Water property, Casey said that it is possible to purchase the property in stages with grant money, but it would require a "leap of faith" to bond and pay it back over three years with grant money.
Casey told Patch that she did not want to make any comment about anything she reportedly said to SOD regarding the United Water property. Her reason being that "not one person" she has spoken to "got it right." Casey said that she will be making her official comment when she appears before the Mayor and Council at their January meeting.
"I'd rather say what I have to say [regarding the United Water property] and say it on the official record at the January meeting," Casey said.
Subrizi said that after the appearance of Casey at the March 14, 2011, mayor and council meeting, Casey never provided the council with a packet of information outlining a course of action in obtaining grants that could be put towards the property.
Subrizi wants to dispel the notion that she is the enemy. "I want to keep the power to rezone that property in the hands of New Milford and not give it to the courts," she said.
"If the developer, or the town, takes the case to court, the court's decision will ultimately rezone that property, and that's not what I want for New Milford."