The Cumberland County Planning Commission has voted to recommend a zoning change in Middlesex Township that would facilitate the sale of Claremont Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, but with some concern from commission members that the county is taking a piecemeal approach to re-zoning in the interest of concluding a sale.
The matter, with the county planning commission’s feedback, is scheduled for a public hearing, and possible vote, at the Middlesex Township supervisors’ meeting on July 7, township zoning officer Mark Carpenter said.
County staff members recused themselves from their usual analysis of the proposal when it was discussed by the planning commission on Thursday. Because the county is the entity requesting the new zoning, county representatives are “excusing themselves for any potential conflict of interest,” commission chair James Ross said.
The county is working through the possible sale of Claremont, the county-owned nursing home, to Allaire Health Services, the remaining bidder from the county’s search process that began at the end of last year.
Divesting from Claremont, in addition to the debate over whether it is in the county’s best humanitarian and financial interest to sell the nursing home, also presents a land-use problem.
Claremont, along with the county prison, aging office, recycling center, and other facilities, sits on one98-acre parcel that would need to be subdivided to sell the nursing home portion.
The existing land uses on the parcel, including Claremont, are not expressly permitted under Middlesex Township’s zoning ordinance.
The parcel is within a “residential farm” district, in which “public buildings and governmental institutions” are allowed only under a special exception approval. No provision, even under a special exception, would allow an institution like Claremont as a privately held facility, according to the county’s memo on the matter.
To remedy this, the county proposes creating a new zoning classification in Middlesex Township, dubbed “institutional district,” in which long-term care facilities and other similar uses are permitted by default. The county’s main parcel, as well as some outlying parcels along Army Heritage Drive, are proposed to be re-classified to this new zoning.
Ron Lucas, the county’s counsel on the proposal, said that while the zoning revision was spurred by the Claremont sale discussion, the change is consistent with township and county future land use plans, which identify the area as an institutional use.
“It’s in the zoning comprehensive plan but was never put in the zoning ordinance,” Lucas said of codifying the institutional area. Carpenter agreed that the new zone would be an appropriate update to the township’s zoning ordinance, regardless of if the county sells Claremont or not.
Planning Commissioner Ed Franco asked if the county wasn’t being remiss in singling out its own land and not seeking a comprehensive re-zone to apply the new zoning district to every appropriate parcel.
But the current proposal is request-driven, Carpenter said, even though it would make “good planning sense” long-term for the institutional zone to be applied comprehensively.
“We have a specific request from the county and that’s what we’re dealing with,” Carpenter said.
Planning and use
Franco also inquired as to why the county’s plan anticipated subdividing only Claremont, and not splitting up the rest of the parcel in a way that would make future potential uses more clear.
“I hear expediency would be difficult … and that you’re therefore trying to limit your proposal very specifically, but in my mind the county ought to be demonstrating good planning and good use,” Franco said.
“I don’t know if the county wants to take the effort to plan what uses will be on the properties down the road,” which would involve determining lot sizes for the prison and other major elements, Lucas said.
The new zoning classification would impact the county’s ability to do that; the proposed institutional zone has minimum lot sizes of 40,000 square feet, or just less than one acre, as opposed to five acres for nonresidential uses under the current residential farm zone.
Planning Commissioner Brenda Landis also said the county’s comprehensive plan defines “institutional character areas,” of which the Claremont Road and Army Heritage Drive properties are part, as “25 acres or larger.”
While the county campus collectively is much greater in size, the intent of the new zoning is to allow the county to subdivide and sell off parcels of a smaller size to private owners.
“There is a future possibility that other land would be sold because that is the question at hand right now,” Landis said.
The Claremont parcel, if subdivided for sale, would be 13.7 acres, according to Chris Dellinger, the county’s engineer for the subdivision.
The notion of selling Claremont has been an issue for months, with the county’s two Republican commissioners, Gary Eichelberger and Vince DiFilippo, arguing that privatization of the nursing home is the correct path given the county is now in the position of having to subsidize the facility with general tax money because of Claremont’s financial losses.
County Commissioner Jean Foschi, the board’s lone Democrat, has been more skeptical of the sale proposal and has said the county has not fully relayed to the public what all of the scenarios for Claremont’s future could be.
Foschi, who serves as the county commissioners’ liaison to the planning commission, said Thursday that she has not yet received a sales agreement proposal for Claremont, with attorneys for the county and Allaire currently working on the matter.