Manchester's Township Council approved a changed to its zoning rules Monday evening, allowing multifamily development in the town center zone.
The ordinance allows for apartments with a density of 10 units per acre on tracts of land 30 acres or larger in an area previously zoned for commercial use.
The township decided it was time for the change, which amends Chapter 245 of the township code, after the land lay undeveloped for many years, said Council President Craig Wallis.
"It's been there for a long, long time, and there isn't any interest," Wallis said before all council members — save for the absent Samuel Fusaro — voted in favor of approving the changes. "In the near future, I don't see [any commercial developments] going in there."
Bridgewater-based developer Pizzo and Pizzo is interested in building apartments in the town center, said township planner Tom Thomas before the Planning Board recommended the ordinance for approval at its meeting in early May. The 50-acre tract of land is near the Wells Fargo bank, diagonally across Route 37 from the municipal complex on Colonial Drive, and could accommodate 500 units.
Resident Hank Glen questioned whether the township was making the correct decision by allowing multifamily use rather than waiting for a commercial developer to bring more business into Manchester.
"We have to look at the potential of this land," he said. "Once multifamily housing goes in there, that's it."
The area has been zoned for commercial use for over 40 years without drawing development, Thomas said. Many potential builders have approached the township, yet "inevitably, they've fallen flat on their faces."
Thomas said that the 50-acre tract of land could potentially hold a big box store, but a multifamily development would bring in more tax revenue.
"[A multifamily housing] development is potentially a huge ratable," he said.
The area would be "one of or the largest ratable in town," said business administrator Elena Zsoldos.
Zoning the land for multifamily use is less of a drain on municipal services than single-family homes, according to Wallis.
Traffic in the area would likely not be impacted much, Thomas said, because the primary access point would be on Route 37. A secondary access point would be on Colonial Drive. But before anything is constructed, Thomas said that the plans will be properly scrutinized by township boards.
"There will be a lot of review," he said.
Multifamily housing units could be a draw to young professionals — individuals starting out after graduating college who may not be able to afford a single-family home and would be less likely to have children, Wallis said. This should mean the housing would not have a substantial impact on schools, as children who have been longtime township residents graduate and are replaced by younger students.
"[Enrollment] numbers are always going to fluctuate," Wallis said.
Thomas explained at Planning Board's regular May meeting that the ordinance is the result of an amendment to the Manchester's master plan and was recommended in a reexamination report two years ago.
Pizzo and Pizzo mostly develops in northern New Jersey, but has completed a project in Toms River. The company would maintain the complex if and when it is completed, according to Thomas. The property owners requested the zoning change, Thomas said.
"They are builders and managers," Thomas said. "It's not like they're going to build the units and walk off."
In accordance with affordable housing rules of the state, 20 percent, or 100 units, would be designated as low or moderate income housing, Thomas said.
If a plan for a nearby 40 to 50-unit veteran's housing complex comes to fruition, Thomas said there has been "some discussion" of transferring those affordable housing units to that project.
The veteran's housing is being considered on Route 37 across the street and 400 to 500 feet to the west from the potential apartment site. If the affordable housing units are transferred, they would "probably" be funded by the potential Pizzo and Pizzo development, Thomas said.
Donald Czekanski, who in addition to his role as a planning board member also serves on the township's Veteran's Advisory Committee, said in May that Mayor Michael Fressola has been working toward getting the veteran's housing project to come to fruition.
"We've had some discussions about it," he said. "I think it's a real great plan if it materializes."
Transferring the units to the potential veteran's housing would be beneficial to both developers, Thomas said. The apartment developer would receive regular-priced rent from more units while the veteran's complex will be maintained by a nonprofit organization.
A draft ordinance for the veteran's housing project is anticipated at the next planning board meeting.