MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — More than 50 property owners off Indian Trail Road will be protected from the township taking their homes as part of a redevelopment plan, under a settlement reached with the township.

The properties are within a redevelopment zone, by which the township hopes to spur development in a long vacant-area. The Indian Trail Redevelopment Plan seeks to consolidate close to 200 acres under township ownership.

For now, the township does not have a specific plan for the land. The properties will still fall within the redevelopment zone, but under the settlement will be exempted from the "condemnation redevelopment area.”

“The whole area is included because the whole area could benefit from redevelopment designation, but what we’re trying to do is encourage development on the vacant lots,” said township Administrator Elizabeth Terenik at the Sept. 17 Township Committee meeting, where an ordinance amending the plan was introduced.

The area includes more than 300 lots, most in an undeveloped wooded stretch between Indian Trail Road and Sound Drive, running from the bike path on Railroad Avenue to a sand-mining operation to the west.

The township has tried for years to draw development to the area, with little success. So far, 52 of the properties are developed. The township owns about 80 parcels in the tract, spread almost evenly along unfinished paper streets in a checkerboard patchwork.

This year, a township attempt to consolidate the remaining properties as part of a fresh redevelopment plan brought a lawsuit from some property owners. 

A public hearing and final vote are planned on an ordinance that would exempt most of the developed properties from the use of eminent domain as part of the redevelopment plan. The meeting will be held 6 p.m. Oct. 15 at the township Municipal Building, 33 Mechanic St.

Soon after the township approved the latest redevelopment plan in early May, a group of property owners filed suit in Superior Court to fend off any possible condemnation. The suit included most of the lots where structures have been built. The ordinance amendment introduced at the Sept. 17 committee meeting is part of an agreement settling that suit.

“Redevelopment into what?” asked a neighbor at the meeting.

“We don’t know yet. That hasn’t been determined,” responded Terenik. The township doesn’t necessarily have to determine that yet, she said. “What we have to do is make a determination that without some kind of intervention, whether it’s condemnation or something else, that land will never be developed.”

The area is zoned for residential use, she said. Discussions with the township’s Zoning Board indicated the area will likely remain residential, Terenik added.

The amendment removes more than 50 properties from the area where condemnation could be used for the township to acquire the properties. According to Olga Pomar, an attorney representing the property owners, most had followed the plans for a redevelopment area, including attending Planning Board meetings, and were surprised to find their properties included in the area that could allow the township to use condemnation to acquire the land.

Most of the properties in question are owner-occupied residences, according to both the township and Pomar. She said most have lived in the homes since they were built.

“We’re very happy that after we filed a lawsuit, the settlement with the township would remove all of the residents out of the condemnation area,” she said in a recent phone interview.

The amended plan leaves far more properties open to condemnation, a process that allows a public entity to buy private land even if the owner does not agree to sell. A court typically sets a value for the owner’s compensation.

Former Mayor Dan Lockwood questioned the ordinance at the recent committee meeting, asking whether some owners who live out of state know their land could be taken.

“No, they know,” said Jim Maley, the redevelopment counsel for the township. In most cases, the privately owned lots are some distance from the road, with little chance for development without township intervention.

“I can tell you with having spoken to a whole lot of those folks, most everyone was, ‘Would you like to buy my property tomorrow?’ Nobody in that group was objecting in any way,” said Maley.

Inclusion in the zone does not mean a property will be condemned, township officials said. A purchase could be negotiated or the township may never move to acquire the properties.

“Just so it’s clear, just because this is a condemnation redevelopment area doesn’t mean that the township is going to use eminent domain,” said township attorney Frank Corrado.

Sometimes referred to as the Tower/Carpino tract, the wooded area has been the site of previous development attempts. A township report states the entire area was included in a planned development district in 1996, and in 2005, the township auctioned off parcels in the tract in hopes of stimulating development. A report determining the need for a redevelopment area states the economic downturn that decade and other factors kept most development from moving forward.