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Residents Raise Concerns Over Potential Expansion of Rio Redevelopment Zone

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By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – Middle Township Committee recently directed the Middle Township Planning Board to look at expanding the Rio Grande redevelopment zone so that it would encompass a larger portion of the community.
Some Rio Grande residents turned out at the committee’s May 1 meeting to voice a different set of opinions on how best to address the problems in one of the most troubled areas in the township.
Michelle Salfi and some of her neighbors came to the meeting to argue that the area is already overdeveloped. She said the township needs to focus on issues of public safety and quality of life in Rio Grande.
“Bringing in more businesses and affordable housing is not accomplishing much for those of us who live in Rio Grande,” she said.
“Redevelopment is not going to fix the problem,” she added.
The township action that sparked this discussion was a directive to the Planning Board relative to an expanded redevelopment zone. The new zone, if eventually designated, would run from the area near Menz Restaurant on Route 47 down to Route 9 and beyond almost to the Garden State Parkway underpass and from the township border with Lower Township to the approximate area of the Walmart Supercenter on Route 9.
The zone would also contain a condemnation feature if needed, although the township has not indicated any readiness to use eminent domain in any redevelopment efforts to date.
Mayor Tim Donohue sees the expanded redevelopment zone as a way to potentially attract new business and pave the way for increased affordable housing.
“Many of the police officers and teachers who work in the township cannot afford to live in township communities,” Donohue said.
Salfi and others were not swayed by the argument in favor of either development or affordable housing. Expressing concerns about affordable housing developments, Salfi said the township “dumps on” Rio Grande.
Donohue explained that the township’s affordable housing plan applies equally to the entire municipality. Any development with five or more housing units has a 20% set aside for affordable housing, he said.
Police Chief Christopher Leusner said Rio Grande presents a unique set of challenges in the township.
“30% of the crime in the township occurs in a half-square mile of Rio Grande along Routes 47 and 9,” Leusner said.
The township has over 75 square miles of land area.
Leusner added that the township has done several things to deal with the community’s problems.
He mentioned the Rio Grande police substation, the formation of the Street Crimes Unit, and the reliance on a data-driven approach to indicate where the department’s resources should be used, an approach that leads to greater enforcement resources in Rio Grande.
Leusner also outlined several non-enforcement actions directed at reducing crime. He touched on the public advocate program, the participation of Volunteers of America and, most recently, the pilot Arrive Together program that will link police with mental health professionals when responding to certain situations with mental health implications.
For Salfi and some of her neighbors, the problems of homelessness, petty crime, and drug use in Rio Grande are where the focus needs to remain.
“Something needs to be done” was a constant message.
There was discussion of the recently formed Rio Grande Community Partnership chaired by Committeeman Jim Norris.
Cape Hope’s Denise South praised the community members for their passion and desire for improvement, but, she added, “These problems have been around since the 1970s. They will not go away overnight.”
South spoke of the need for an area for the homeless where “we can provide services.”
In the end, officials thanked the residents who came to the meeting for sharing their concerns. They said they will continue to work to address the area’s problems.
Donohue added that he saw these concerns as separate from the effort to expand the redevelopment zone. 
Contact the author, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com.

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