Developers wrestle with officials over proposed mall

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:48

    SUSSEX COUNTY-It's out of their hands; at least until the Frankford Township Land Use Board decides whether or not to give the go ahead to plans for building a 390,0000 square-foot shopping mall in Frankford. The Secaucus-based developer of the proposed mall, Sussex Commons LLC, said the board has scheduled a public meeting, May 18, to field questions and comments before deciding to accept or reject its $54.8 million project. Howard Buerkle, one of three principal project developers with Sussex Commons LLC, said the process could take up to six months because of the size and scope of the project. "It's garnered a lot of interest," said Buerkle. "It's probably the largest commercial property project in Sussex County since the old Playboy Club." At its April 20 meeting, the Land Use Board accepted the completed application for review contingent upon some waivers requested by the developer. The board has 120 days to reach its decision. Sussex Commons LLC has requested additional time to complete a report that guarantees adequate water supplies will flow from fire hydrants. The developer accused the township earlier this month in court that officials had not properly moved the project along. In the meantime, both sides took swipes at each other in an attempt to gain footing on the grounds of public opinion. Two days before agreeing to accept the project application, township officials had issued a statement accusing Sussex Commons LLC of ignoring directives from the state while proceeding ahead with plans for development of the proposed mall. The statement was in response to a lawsuit filed by Sussex Commons LLC in March that charged the township with backing out of a "contract" to use its "best efforts" to secure all appropriate permits for a wastewater treatment plan that the mall development would need before moving ahead. Buerkle said the town had supported the project up until May or when Frankford officials applied to the state for a town center designation with the mall as a centerpiece. The town eventually withdrew the application after failing to gain approval for the designation from the state Office of Smart Growth. "We're not going away," said Buerkle. "We have several million dollars invested. This is the most prized piece of property in Northwest New Jersey. The property gets more valuable every day." In its statement, the township said Sussex Commons LLC "has unilaterally elected to proceed, without compromise, toward its plan for the outlet center despite the rejection by the (state)." The open-air shopping mall is planned for construction at Ross' Corner next to Skylands Park, the county's geographic center at the intersection of Routes 15, 206, and 565, about a mile from the fairgrounds. Buerkle said the "New England-style" colonial village will include 70-90 stores in 310,000 square-feet designed for retail space, 30,000 square-feet for six restaurants, and 24,000 square-feet of office space. He estimated that the project will create more than 400 construction jobs, 440 permanent full- and part-time positions, and deliver an additional $4.5 million in tax dollars to the surrounding local and county budgets. But opponents of the mall have said the planned site is ill equipped to handle the enormous infrastructure demands that the planned shopping village would create. But Buerkle said Sussex Commons LLC left no stone unturned before presenting its site plan. He said countless hours have been invested with engineers and architects to conduct studies and prepare reports to meet regulatory guidelines in support of the mall. Buerkle said the "vast majority of residents want the mall," despite attempts by "stakeholders" to detour plans. He said residents no longer want additional homes to be built in the township, but are rather interested in tax ratables instead. "Would it be easier to build a house? Sure it would," said Buerkle. "What we're trying to do is build something that will be here and of service to the community for a long time." A six-member county planning board review committee unanimously delayed plans for the mall earlier this year because it found Sussex Commons LLC had not submitted adequate information, particularly about traffic and environmental concerns. "There are some individuals who feel they'd like things never to change," said Buerkle. "We knew there would be certain environmental issues to attend to and we did that early on. Everything that we could do to make this project ecologically safe has been done. The property is zoned for the purpose that we want to use it for. There's no reason why the mall shouldn't be built." According to Buerkle, his company has decided to inform the public through mailings to counter misinformation generated about the mall. He said he looks forward to the upcoming public discussions and debate. "Rumors get started, but there's not a lot we can do about them," he said. "We can only address them and correct them." Construction is scheduled to be completed in August 2006.