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.