Downzoning means bigger lots, smaller population

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:53

    VERNON-In a vote that took less than a minute Monday night, Vernon's projected population dropped by at least 5,000 people. Although the action took little time and was accompanied by virtually no discussion, it was the end result of a process that began at least six years ago, said Township Planner Fred Suljic. And it is all interconnected with the establishment of two town centers that will be the focal points of the Vernon of the future. Until Monday, when the Vernon Township Council unanimously approved a change in the town's zoning ordinance, the maximum future population of the town, Suljic said, was about 37,000 n about 11,000 more than it is now. After the vote, he said, it dropped to about 31,000. In a process called "downzoning," the new law increases the minimum lot size in the top residential zones n designated R1 - from three acres to five. It also reclassified a large swath of the northwestern part of the township from R2, which allowed houses on two-acre lots, to R1. Existing R2 zones were increased from two acres to three. An 80-plus-acre tract in the Highland Lakes area that had mistakenly been zoned public land was converted to R1 also instead of to a Private Lake Community zone, which allows houses on lots as small as a quarter acre. Two small tracts were converted from lake community zoning to "Agricultural Eco-Tourism." Suljic said he didn't know the exact acreage involved, but by increasing lot sizes, the township decreased the number of homes that can be built on its remaining land. At 68 square miles, Vernon is one of the largest townships in Sussex County; it has the county's largest population. Already, about 55 percent of Vernon's area is protected from development by the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge, Wawayanda State Park, Hamburg Mountain Reservation, the Pequannock Watershed, the Appalachian Trail and the town's new bike path, which is under development. Suljic explained that the town centers n one on a new Main Street that will run from the end of Church Street at Route 94 to the A&P Plaza on Route 515, the other at Mountain Creek Village n call for higher densities of development that will be possible because of the proposed extension of the town's sewers. The county freeholders are expected to approve that extension next week and forward it to Trenton for final approval by the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection. To offset the higher densities in the town centers, even though the Mountain Creek development will not allow permanent residents, the town decreased the density in much of its remaining area. "Vernon's come a long way," said Suljic, who was Sussex County's planner from 1978 until his retirement in 2002. Since then, he's been the part-time planning consultant for Vernon, Ogdensburg, and Green. "It is reacting to its responsibility to preserve the environment and develop the town center. The township has tried to do this the right way." It is all related to Vernon's quest both to live up to its motto as "The Four-Season Resort Community" and to develop definable centers to give visitors and residents alike a sense of place. "Vernon was a diamond in the rough," said Suljic. Looking ahead to when the sewers are in and a developed Main Street begin to become reality, he said, "Vernon's identity will start to come out in 2007 to 2008."