Thursday, September 21, 2006

Blowin' In the Wind

From the Star Ledger

Windy Acres: Of bobolinks and lawsuits

Say "Windy Acres" to a certain set of people -- land-use planners, environmentalists, builders and the like -- and it doesn't only conjure an image of 292 undeveloped acres of rolling Hunterdon County farmland close to Route 78. It's become much more than that.

Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club calls Windy Acres "the poster child for suburban sprawl."

Mike Disler, president of the Metro New York/New Jersey Division of Pulte Homes, which owns the property and would like to turn it into a mix of senior and low-cost housing, calls it "the poster child for why there is an affordability crisis in housing in this state."

And so it goes in a saga that began in 1985 and has become one of the longest-running development disputes in the state. It's a conflict between developers and environmentalists; between municipalities and the requirements mandated by state's Council on Affordable Housing; and, above all else, the conflict in this crowded state over what has long been our most limited resource: open land.
The Cliff's Notes version of the dispute goes like this: In 1985, Windy Acres owner Irving Hilsenroth proposed building an office park there. In 1987, the Clinton Township Planning Board rejected the proposal and rezoned Windy Acres residential, deciding it was an ideal site to help fulfill the town's affordable housing quota as required under the state Supreme Court's landmark Mount Laurel ruling.

In 1995, Hilsenroth returned, proposing a 1,140-unit mix of single-family homes, townhomes and low-cost units. In 1997, he partnered with Pulte Homes, a Michigan-based developer that, with nearly $15 billion in revenue last year, is the nation's largest home builder.
By 1999, Pulte -- which eventually bought the property from Hilsenroth for $13.6 million -- had gained general approval for building 1,019 units, scaling down the size slightly to give some of the protected species on the land -- like the turtles -- enough buffer zone.

But soon Pulte had a lot more than a few turtles to worry about. The town was beginning to mobilize politically against Windy Acres, which was projected to increase the number of households in town by 30 percent.

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