Developer and board stymied on Zinctown project

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:44

    FRANKLIN - Both the planning board and the man who wants to develop the old New Jersey Zinc offices and change house are anxious to begin the long-awaited revitalization of Main Street. But all are stymied by what they agree are outdated zoning ordinances that have put the project in limbo. Anthony Patire, owner of Zinctown Properties, pleaded with the planning board Monday night to recognize his plight and to move toward correcting it by amending the ordinances that now allow for mostly residential development rather than the commercial buildings that both the board and Patire want. "What can I do?" asked Patire, who owns a two-tiered tract of land off of Main Street that once was a hub of the New Jersey Zinc Company's daily operations of the mines, including the firm's time offices and a large change house where miners showered and dressed after their shifts hundreds of feet below ground. "I've been held up for two years; I've been involved with this property since 1982," Patire said. "It's only evolved to what it is now because of what the board would like to see. We have potential customers who are not going to wait. I don't intend to build something that's not going to be sellable." Patire is trying to gain planning board approval for three separate, yet related, phases of development for the tract that is fronted on Main Street by the Franklin Heritage Museum and extends back toward Junction Street, very close to where the borough's century-old viaduct still stands. Once completed, the project would include almost all commercial development and only a small number of residential units, almost exactly the opposite of what current ordinances permit. At the same time, it remains unclear whether or not the final form of the project will be determined by the developer or the board. A recent study by borough planners designated the Patire-owned tract as an area in need of redevelopment. The recommendation was forwarded to borough council, which has not yet acted on it. Under a redevelopment classification, it is possible that land could be condemned and taken from the current owner, who would be entitled to adequate compensation. That, however, is something most borough officials feel is a "last resort" and would like to avoid. "It offers the town the ability to designate who the developer will be and (for) special zoning," explained James Kilduff, the borough's director of planning and community development. "Often, the property owner can be the designated developer." "This board has made a recommendation to the town council, at their request, to look at redevelopment on that property," said board chairman John Cholminski. "It offers more flexibility." In the spring of 2003, the New Brunswick-based firm of Heyer, Gruel and Associates presented a new master plan to the town, which was approved by the planning board. The plan suggested specific ways to pursue the Gateway project, including renovation of the change house as the "key building." But the zoning ordinances remain a problem. "The way it's zoned now, I can only develop four acres commercially and 238 units residential," Patire said. "That's what's zoned there right now. I altered my plans to their desires with this property. But yet, they don't have laws to allow it. That's why I'm in limbo." Franklin native Thomas Prol, who is Zinctown's attorney, also said that originally commercial development was only to be at about 20 percent "maximum," with the remaining 80 percent "presumably" for residential use. "Now, we get the feeling from this board that they want a more commercial-type use for this property and much less residential," Prol continued. "And so, we've created an application that meets that. But we still have to meet the existing ordinance." Patire's most recent blueprint offers mostly commercial development, including three key buildings that would, as part of the first phase, be placed on the land's bottom tract, some 60 feet or lower in height than the upper portion. The upper tract would be part of the second phase, including renovation of the change house and other nearby commercial structures. Patire had also proposed building 64 residential units on the property's eastern border with Stirling Street. That idea has been rejected by the planning board, which instead proposed building fewer than ten town houses instead. "We're hopeful the ordinances will change," Prol, a former Peace Corps volunteer, added. "But what the end product will be is anyone's guess. We have to abide by the ordinance." "I think the board has come around and really analyzed this more," commented Zinctown's engineer, Calisto Bertin. "The planning process is the pros and cons of looking at all different uses, and that's why it's seesawed. We're no further now than two-and-a-half years ago because we were trying to work with the town, but the process is taking a long time. "We're going to come back with 4.2 acres of commercial development on the lower level," Bertin concluded. "And then we'll decide what to do with the rest of the property." In the meantime, Cholminski, who favors a redevelopment designation for the property, instructed Zinctown to address the presence of many concrete bunkers and other holes which were once part of the zinc company's mining operations at the bottom of the lower portion, "I'm going to ask for expert testimony as to what he's (Patire) going to do with the cleanup and safety issues," Cholminski said.