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If You Build It, Will Students Come?

Ridgewood superintendent warns the school enrollment projections offered by developers for four housing projects may not hold true, leaving the town to pick up the costs.

As the planning board inches closer toward voting on new zoning law that would enable four housing developments to significantly alter the landscape of downtown Ridgewood, the village's top school administrator has raised concerns on potential impacts.

The developers of The Enclave, Ridgewood Station, Chestnut Village and The Dayton estimate an aggregate of about 30-40 school-aged children for about 324 apartment units.

But while other nearby towns are seeing declining enrollment, Ridgewood's currently sees an average increase of about 50 students per year, Superintendent Daniel Fishbein said. Current school enrollment is 5,854, Ridgewood is the largest district in Bergen County.

An increase of between 50 and 70 students – higher than what's estimated by the developers – wouldn't necessarily be troublesome, Fishbein said.  A "clustering" among specific grades would be problematic, he said. There remains a possibility redistricting could be necessary.

Based on property lines, the 106-unit Dayton project and the 52-unit Enclave proposal would send students to Orchard Elementary School. Chestnut Village, with 52 units, and Ridgewood Station, at 114 apartments, would send students to Ridge Elementary School. Fishbein cited need for additional crossing guards and potential changes to school routes if they're constructed.

But there was another concern echoed by the top school administrator – if the projects are in fact going to attract empty-nesters from Ridgewood, it's highly likely that families with children move in to those homes, further increasing enrollment.

The projects could end up being a financial boon to the municipal budget. Chestnut Village projects to provide a net $32,000 in surplus tax revenue once services are accounted for. (The other developers did not offer an analysis of possible service needs/tax payments.)

But due to state law, the district can only increase its budget by 2 percent. Should there be a large increase in students, the district could apply for a cap waiver. The figure would be determined by the state and would simply allow the district to increase taxes beyond the 2 percent limit.

While the municipality can force a builder's remedy to address costs the town incurrs in streets, utilities and drainage, the same does not apply to schools.

"The law places limits on what we can do requiring additional payments to subsidize the schools," Village Planner Blais Brancheau said. Only collected taxes can address school impacts. In short, Ridgewood schools are highly unlikely to benefit from new residents.

Asked by Deputy Mayor Albert Pucciarelli if the schools have the capacity to hold a glut of new students, Fishbein responded that it's a "community decision."

"There's always flexibility," he said. "It's how big you want your classrooms to be...capacity is really what the board of ed and the community wants."

Ridgewood class sizes are already larger than that of comparable districts. How many students would be in each classroom is not yet clear.

The cost of educating students isn't a hard figure either, Fishbein noted. Some special education children can cost districts upwards of $100,000. The district has also seen an increase of about 2.5 percent in special needs students in the last few years, tallying 950 in 2012-2013.

"All children do not cost the same," he remarked.

Typically, said Village Planner Blais Brancheau, single-family housing (Ed note: see correction below) is a net loss when taxes and services are factored.

The planning board, however, cannot base its vote solely on whether the projects are a financial gain or loss.

"Whether it makes money or loses money is not the point," Brancheau said. "If the use is appropriate is the bottom line."

"As for the typical fiscal impact of multifamily housing, it varies, depending upon many factors, including the rents/values, density, number of bedrooms, etc," Brancheau said in a follow-up e-mail. "Sometimes they are a positive 'ratable,' sometimes not."

A look at current rates on students living in multi-family dwellings numerates a few interesting data points. 

Ridgewood currently holds 819 multi-family housing units, with 219 public school children. However, 46 percent – or, 88 students – reside at the garden apartments on Oak Street. The developers contend garden apartments with green space drive student populations. Their projects, described as luxury with high price points, hold virtually no green space and scale at least four stories.

Fishbein is more skeptical.

"When these are built and the predictions don't pan out," the superintendent warned, "we're here to deal with it."

Correction: Village Planner Blais Brancheau said single family housing is typically a net loss; not necessarily multi-family. The copy has been altered to reflect the statement.

Boyd A. Loving February 06, 2013 at 11:15 PM
"Typically, said Village Planner Blais Brancheau, multi-family housing developments are a net loss when taxes and services are factored." Got that everyone; NET LOSS. Translation = higher property taxes. Proving once again that you can't have your cake and eat it too.
Pete McKenna February 07, 2013 at 04:17 AM
This is typical of Ridgewood development. The applicant says the impact will be near zero, they get approved, then the reality hits and there is no recourse for the land-use boards or Village Council to hold anyone accountable for the atrocious quality of the projections. This has to change, because if you approve a 5% increase, and a 25% increase occurs, the taxpayers are on the hook for the difference. Maybe it's time to arrange a bond to protect taxpayers if the developers projections are "light".
Matt Allen February 07, 2013 at 04:32 AM
"described as luxury with high price points" Once again, can someone please point me to the childless demographic that is dying to move into a tiny 'luxury' apartment in sleepy Ridgewood? This town attracts only one kind of demographic - married couples with kids. That is the only demographic that is willing to bear the ridiculous level of property taxes for the sake of good schooling for their children. That is the very clear dynamic all over our region, be it Bergen County, Westchester County or other NYC suburbs. We should totally reject these totally unsubstantiated claims. Young people are not going to flock to Ridgewood as there is absolutely nothing for them here. And older childless couples are not going to put up with the ridiculous level of property taxes (implicit in rents). But if we do indeed want to change the village as we know it, there is an easy way to separate the chaff the grain, as in separate developers who genuinely care about the community from those who are here for a quick buck. Approve the same buildings but only as condos, not apartments. If the developers' 'different demographic' argument holds, then the condos will also attract those people. People buying condos will also be more involved in the community as they will likely stay for longer than a typical renter. $10 says approving condos will send most of these developers - interested only in cashing out in the recent multifamily rental market boom - packing.
Matt Allen February 07, 2013 at 07:31 AM
I second that. Let us hold part of the proceeds (be it condo sales or apartment rent) in escrow with a third party trustee. The proceeds can then be gradually released over a fixed time frame (let us say 10 years) to the developer as long as all claims hold up. If they dont, then we start penalizing the developer. This should ensure long term committment to the community instead of fly-by-night operations.
JT February 07, 2013 at 02:05 PM
If affordable housing is available, people with children will come. In fact, you may see families with special needs children being finally able to afford to get into Ridgewood and making the move to get their child into the Ridgewood system. I would do anything to get my special needs child into this system, including giving up "green space". Of course the developers will say whatever they want to get approved. Shame on this council if they let this go through! Commonsense says - try one development and see what the impact is on traffic & schools - then make decisions from there.
JT February 07, 2013 at 02:11 PM
And I totally agree with Matt Allen. Require that they all be condos!
Felicia February 07, 2013 at 03:44 PM
I don't know why but I can't see the previous comments, so apologies if I repeat what others may already have said. Perhaps Mr. Brancheau meant differently, but it absolutely does matter if a project makes or loses money for the town. The last thing the home owners of this town can afford is yet more transient students to overload our schools. While they may help increase our SAT averages, it's obvious by the Oak Street Apts alone that we the tax payers pay for their entire tutions. I understand that the cost of an average student is about $18000. The taxes on that dwelling alone don't even pay for 2 full kids. We do. There are 88 of them there going to school basically for free, and over 100 more elsewehre. Increasing our taxes to pay for yet more kids who only stay till they graduate will quickly decrease the desirablitly of this as a place to live. High end houses are struggling to sell in this town. Why is that, do we think? And this malarkey about the green space, please. 88 kids live in the Oak Street apts. Go by any time of day or evening, week-end, whenever. There is never anyone playing on the "green space." They live there because their friends live there, and it's close to the library, not because of green space.
Brian February 07, 2013 at 04:06 PM
JT, so why dont you just rent one of the 800+ units already available in town? The opportunity to rent your way into the district already exists.
Brian February 07, 2013 at 04:15 PM
The most significant number in this story is that there is about .25 children per apartment in the village right now. Bottom line, the proposed 324 units are more likely to add 80 children (.25 children per unit) than 30 as the developers claim. The percentage would have to fall from .25 to below .10 for the developers to be correct. Demographics don't lie or change all that much. We have predictable patterns and need to use them to make public policy. While a concentration of children are currently in 1 development, there is also good reason to believe that the new units will result in empty- nesters "swapping" their home for an apartment. This will create a net increase in school age population as their home is sold to a young family. If these factors cancel each other out you would have a net of .25 children per unit. I support these developments and think they are a critical step in revitalizing the downtown area. BUT we need to plan for the real costs. School budgets, districts and transportation need to be addressed in a realistic way. Maybe the developers have to pay for additional improvements in town or any additional classrooms required. There are ways to deal with the cost issue BUT it has to be dealt with IN ADVANCE.
Villager February 07, 2013 at 05:58 PM
JT and Matt, requiring that these apartments are condos means nothing. The developer can condo them and still hold onto them and keep them as rentals! What if the developer is unable to sell these condos in this market? He can then rent them. Calling or labeling them condos is meaningless. Once they are built, they can be rented and there is nothing we can do about it.
Villager February 07, 2013 at 06:14 PM
This is an issue that is going to touch every parent in town with school age children. It should be discussed at all HSA meetings from the High School down to the elementary schools. More kids coming into a system with shrinking budgets. We can not even afford substitute teachers in our middle schools and high school...how can we possibly afford more children? These apartments will bring in many more children to our system, don't be fooled. Anyone will pay a premium for good education. But will Ridgewood still be able to offer great education when we are overcrowded in our schools?
Matt Allen February 07, 2013 at 08:16 PM
It makes a difference. The developer cannot directly set up a rental office and rent out the condos. They have to be sold to someone else. The financing of a pure multifamily rental property and a condo are very different from the developer's perspective. The developer's holding costs are substantially higher in case of a condo. Hence the due dilligence is much higher - especially given that we are not in the middle of a housing boom. In case of multifamily rentals, the developer is only interested in extracting some quick returns on the equity piece that they will hold in the funding structure. They know that they will be able to extract some rent and this reduces their holding costs. Additionally multi family lending is much more lenient right now as compared to that for just holding on to condos.
barbara February 07, 2013 at 09:15 PM
PUT THESE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSALS TO THE PEOPLE WHO WILL BE PAYING FOR THEM....THE TAXPAYERS. ADD THIS ITEM TO THE MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS AND SEE HOW POPULAR THEY ARE WITH THE RESIDENTS OF RIDGEWOOD. IN MY OPINION, THEY WILL VOTED D O W N!!!!
JT February 07, 2013 at 09:18 PM
I disagree. You are more apt to get long-time residents, committed to the village, if they own. Apartments will bring more transients. Yes, the developer may need to rent some out, but I'm sure many will sell. However, I'd prefer that none of them be built in the first place.
JM February 07, 2013 at 09:24 PM
In response to a few of the earlier comments, I was at the board meeting the other night and the Blais did NOT say that multi-family development is a net loser for the township. On the contrary - he said that SINGLE FAMILY HOMES are net losers for the township. See James' correction in the article.
Felicia February 07, 2013 at 10:05 PM
But it's still a losing proposition.Most houses are losers too b/c the taxes on the average house here covers maybe 1 child. But a resident with a house adds value to a village in many other ways. Backto the comment about having the developers held accountable in some way...maybe they pay the per capita fee to school each child of those living in their dwellings...
Jim February 10, 2013 at 09:24 PM
I think you'll see a lot of Koreans inhabiting this development - lot of eager parents wanting to get their kids into Ridgewood schooling with a relatively low barrier to entry now that Tenafly has become somewhat 'passe'.

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