Historic homes wither as HPC members dither

Although intended to preserve the town’s historic roots and charm, a growing number of residents believe Cranbury’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) is simply stalling progress.

Due to Cranbury’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, the role of the HPC is to ensure it continues to meet or exceed the requirements needed to maintain that status. Among other functions, the HPC has the job of approving all zoning and construction permits for buildings within the town’s historic zone. Nearly one quarter of all structures in Cranbury fall under that category.

“Our job is to make sure this town maintains its unique character even as the world evolves around it,” said one HPC member, who asked to remain anonymous. “While some residents believe we’re overly particular, our sense is that home values would plummet if we started letting Main Street homeowners shop at Home Depot.”

Many Cranbury residents – especially those with permits that seem stuck in limbo pending HPC approval – agree the HPC serves a vital role, but believes it needs to be a bit more agile in considering homeowner requests.

“It’s taken me seven years to try to replant a little bush in front of my house that was killed by frost,” said one Maplewood Avenue resident. “Apparently the HPC is trying to figure out exactly what species of azalea the original owners had. And once they figure it out, that’s the only thing I’ll be able to plant there.”

Kenneth McKay, owner of a large colonial home on South Main, has encountered similar issues.

“My home has a slate roof, and the HPC tells me I can only replace it with another slate roof,” he said. “A new slate roof these days costs upwards of $65,000. Asphalt would cost me $12,000. It’s just asinine – who the hell is looking at my roof anyway?”

According to the township’s construction office, there are 846 permit applications pending HPC approval. The office said the last HPC approval came in 1997, when the committee approved a replacement mailbox for a Bunker Hill Road home.

The HPC’s heavy influence has also deterred some builders from performing work on the township’s historic homes.

“I won’t even bid on a project in Cranbury’s historic zone,” said one local contractor, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal. “The stress of those projects is intense. If you even hammer one nail that’s not consistent with the original build they threaten to yank your license.”

Cranbury mayor David Stout said complaints about the HPC are nothing new, and stressed the importance of the committee in preserving the town’s unique heritage.

“Sure, it can sometimes take a little longer to get projects done in the historic district,” said the mayor. “But without the HPC we’d probably just be another Hightstown.”

Photo: The owner of this North Main Street home has waited 12 years for Cranbury’s HPC to approve his construction permit


Fast Company recognizes several Cranbury small businesses

Fast Company, one of the nation’s leading magazines on entrepreneurship, has highlighted several Cranbury shops in a forthcoming article on small but profitable businesses.

The article, titled “Micro-business: Turning Profits in a Shoe Box,” highlights small business owners who have maximized their profitability by keeping overhead costs excessively low. The Cranbury businesses cited in the article were Gil & Bert’s, Cranbury Delights, The Cranbury Cobbler and Cranbury Pizza.

“Sure, it’s business school 101 that reducing costs will help your bottom line,” said Josh MacDougal, the Sr. Editor at the magazine who wrote the article. “But it’s simply amazing what extreme measures some of these small business owners take when it comes to their own working conditions. I mean, in some cases they might be better off spending eight hours in solitary confinement at their local county prison.”

The following is an excerpt from MacDougal’s article covering the Cranbury businesses he highlighted:

Small town, small business(es)

Perhaps no town in the U.S. has as great a concentration of micro-businesses than Cranbury, N.J. This historic hamlet, a key thoroughfare during Colonial times, features some of the tiniest — but yet quite profitable — businesses on our list. While charming, Cranbury real estate is very expensive, forcing its only thriving businesses into ridiculously miniscule quarters.

Cranbury Delights is a gourmet confectionary nestled into a aging storefront on Cranbury’s Main Street. Its owners and operators, the husband-and-wife team of Agnes and Steve Toth, churn out over 30 pies, 80 gallons of ice cream and 4,000 pieces of chocolate per week. They somehow accomplish all of this despite having only 10 square feet of usable work space in their cramped shop. “Our customers sometimes think we’re having intercourse the way Agnes [Toth] and I have to climb all over each other while we work,” said owner Steve Toth. Despite the shop’s scant accommodations, the Toths say sales in their store have increased three-fold over the past year alone.

The owner of Gil & Bert’s, a popular ice cream destination in Cranbury that sits directly across from Cranbury Delights, realized a creative — if not somewhat crazy — way to keep costs low: he turned his home’s living room into a walk-up dessert window. Once all the necessary equipment and supplies were added, however, the owner realized he had left himself only five square feet to work in. What’s worse, because the former living room is several feet above the ground level, the shop’s workers (the owner among them) find themselves stooping through the service window most of the day. “On many a day I feel like Quasimodo had he been chained to a set of freezer chests for eight hours,” said the shop’s owner. “Even though we’re making money by the scoopful here, I have to admit there are plenty of days when I just want my old living room back.”

Think that’s bad? Picture working in a fully enclosed, non-lighted tool shed that abuts a wood-fired pizza oven — in August! That’s exactly what you’ll find at Gil & Bert’s neighboring business: The Cranbury Cobbler. Though he has more work than he can handle in “10 years,” the shop’s owner, Pierre Dujue, has refused to make even the most modest of improvements – including windows – to his 4 ft x 3 ft studio for more than 20 years. “I decided long ago I’d rather have a cramped and crappy studio and drive a Bentley than the other way around,” said Dujue.

Next to Dujue’s studio sits one of Cranbury’s other micro-destinations: Cranbury Pizza. Despite its diminutive footprint (just 18 square feet rounded up), the popular pizzeria features a full wood-burning stove (Mr. Dujue’s nemesis in the summer), a mammoth glass service case, and twenty tables and booths supported by up to a dozen workers per shift. “The atmosphere is total crowded subway car,” said one patron. “But if that’s the price to pay for great pizza, I’ll take it.” The shop’s owners say their low monthly rent and utility bills allow them to “make a ton of dough.”

Steve Toth, the owner of Cranbury Delights, said he was tickled to be profiled in the magazine.

“I was literally flipping a crêpe when Agnes [Toth] yelled back and said some guy from Fast Company wanted to talk to me about our shop,” he said. “Needless to say I lost track of the crêpe and it ended up burning my arm pretty badly, but that’s OK, this is really exciting stuff.”

The article will be in the November issue of Fast Company, which hits newsstands (most of which are larger than those Cranbury businesses profiled) on 21 October.

Photo: Folks crowd into Cranbury Pizza on a recent Friday night

Is that the real Dan Mulligan at your door?

Is that Dan Mulligan, or Lieutenant Dan?

Far behind in his stated goal of visiting every residence in Cranbury prior to Election Day, Republican Township Committee (TC) candidate Dan Mulligan has confirmed he has hired actor Gary Sinese as a campaign doppelganger.

Sinese, who received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Lt. Dan Taylor in the movie Forrest Gump, will begin his portrayal of Mulligan starting next week in Shadow Oaks. Mulligan said he chose the actor because of his political leanings and because “he just sort of looks like me.”

Mulligan, who will pay for Senise’s services out of his own money, said Cranbury residents will hear the same campaign message regardless of which “Dan” knocks on their door.

“Gary’s a great actor, and it’s no surprise he’s picked up my talking points very quickly,” said Mulligan. “To be honest, he may be a bit more polished than I am.”

Upon announcing his candidacy for TC, Mulligan told Cranbury voters he would visit every home in the township before the 2 November election. As of yesterday, however, Mulligan had visited just 48 of the town’s 1,386 residences.

“On paper it seems easy to knock on 1,400 doors in three months,” said Mulligan. “But all my calculations got thrown off when people started answering their doors. With Gary’s help I’ll be able to uphold my promise to voters.”

Despite the hiring of Senise, a number of political pundits around the state doubt Mulligan’s efforts will yield success in November.

“Every step he’s taken in this year’s campaign is really just over-compensation for his loss last year,” said said Ben Dworkin, Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “I mean, I don’t think Forrest Gump himself could save this campaign at this point.”

Mulligan also ran for one of two seats in last year’s TC election, but finished third behind Jay Taylor (no relation to Lt. Taylor) and David Cook.

Mulligan’s opponents in November are Arthur Hasselbach, a Republican, and Glenn Johnson, a Democrat. To date neither has hired a stunt double.

Photo: Gary Senise as Dan Mulligan

Former Cranbury School teacher makes big splash at new school

Sean Cox, the popular Cranbury School gym teacher who lost his job in June, is off to a big start at his new school.

Cox performed a benefit concert last Friday which raised $1.6 million for his new employer, Franklin High School in Somerset, N.J. Nearly 30,000 people attended the concert, which was held at Rutgers Stadium.

According to administrators at the high school, Cox raised enough money to restore the school’s music program. The program had been cut from next year’s curriculum due to a budget shortfall.

“We knew we were getting a talented teacher in Mr. Cox,” said Dr. Neely Hackett, principal at the school. “But for this young man to have such an immediate impact on our school and our community is downright inspiring.”

Dr. Hackett confirmed Cox will teach gym class and coach the school’s championship wrestling team. He also noted Cox was given a 25% pay increase upon joining the high school’s faculty.

Cox said he was surprised and humbled by the reception at his new school.

“A lot of people in this community don’t have much to give, and yet their generosity was stunning,” he said. “I was a little nervous starting all over again in a whole new school district, but now it’s clear I’ll finally have a chance to spread my wings and do great things.”

Cox taught gym at the Cranbury School for three years, but was not hired back for the 2010-2011 year, apparently due to musical differences between he and John Haney, principal of the Cranbury School. In addition to his teaching duties, Cox was a mainstay at the school’s talent shows and other community events.

Cox confirmed he will perform a second benefit concert in August to try to salvage the school’s science and math programs. The teacher also acknowledged he will use that second concert reprise his new hip-hop number, “Rich White People Whine Too Much.”

News of Cox’s successful landing caught some Cranbury influencers by surprise.

“He raised over one million dollars for them?” asked one member of the Cranbury Township Board of Education, upon hearing the news. “Wow. Imagine how many SmartBoards we could buy with that kind of money.”

Cranbury School’s Haney could not be reached for comment.

Photo: Sean Cox performs a benefit concert for Franklin High School. The concert raised $1.6 million.

Old Trenton Road to see speed bumps starting next week

Showing Cranbury residents it is serious about enforcing the new, lower speed limit it has set for Old Trenton Road, the Middlesex County Department of Highways & Bridges will begin installing speed bumps on the road starting next week.

County road crews will install 24 concrete speed enforcement devices between Main Street and Ancil Davidson Road. The $1.6 million project is expected to take six years to complete.

During May the county lowered the speed limit on the road from 50 mph to 35 mph. David Campion, head of the county’s Highways & Bridges department, said traffic studies and interviews with local police conducted since the speed limit change highlighted serious issues on that stretch of road.

“According to the data we’ve collected, the average speed on that road has increased by 10 mph since we lowered the speed limit last month,” said Fittante. “Clearly it’s not in anyone’s interest to have cars driving an average of 65 mph on a mixed-use roadway surrounded by residences.”

David Stout, Cranbury’s mayor, said his township committee (TC) has fielded numerous complaints from residents about the reduction in speed limit.

“Old Trenton Road is owned and operated exclusively by the county, so the TC has no control over what the county wants to do on that road,” he said. “From my own perspective, as long as the steps taken by the county help minimize the number of accidents involving swim club members, then it’s a good thing.”

Since 2003 more than 122 members of the Cranbury Swim Club have been struck by moving vehicles while walking along Old Trenton Road.

Despite the promise of increased safety, the lower speed limits have irked many township residents. One Shadow Oaks resident seemed to sum up the mood of his fellow neighbors.

“Ever since Plainsboro Road became an official speed trap a few years ago, Old Trenton Road was really the last strip of asphalt in town where you could actually have some fun behind the wheel,” said Robert Ewing. “I mean, at 35 mph you might as well just tootle around town in the family minivan — or maybe even walk”

Campion also mentioned the county was piloting a new type of speed bump for the Old Trenton Road Project. The new speed bumps will feature a 36-inch rise above the road surface — significantly higher than standard 12-inch-high devices.

“For obvious reasons, these larger-type speed bumps are better known in our industry as Audi-busters,” he said. “Needless to say they have proven highly effective in affluent areas such as Cranbury.”

Photo: “Audi-buster” model speed bumps will soon be installed Old Trenton Road in Cranbury

Principal-teacher rift leaves Cranbury residents singing the blues

Many Cranbury School parents and students fondly recall teacher Sean Cox’s talent-show rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” But for Cox, the more appropriate Spingsteen number may be “Better Days.”

Up for tenure following his third year as gym teacher at the school, Cox has been informed by the school that he will not be hired back for next year.

“I would accept the decision if it was based on my professional performance,” he said. “But what really bothers me is that this is clearly a personal vendetta.”

Cox claims that Cranbury School principal John Haney fired him over musical differences, a claim supported by numerous school staff members.

“Principal Haney became particularly critical of Cox toward the end of the year, especially after the Drug-Free Fair,” said one teacher, who asked to be anonymous. “It was commonplace for him to say things like ‘Man, doesn’t that Cox guy sound like a wounded dog when he sings?”

For his part, Haney refuted claims of personal tensions between he and Cox.

“Even though he tends to sing out of his range a lot, I’ve come to like Sean as a person,” said the principal, a former music teacher who fronts a Metallica cover band on the weekends. “But the bottom line is that we need to make our P.E. curriculum a lot more rigorous, something that is difficult to accomplish when we have teachers who make gym class seem like a lot of fun for the kids.”

While Cox has gained a cult-like following among the school community for his affable personality and sense of humor, not everyone is supportive of saving his role.

“If you really look hard at it, the whole idea of a singing gym teacher is a little weird,” said one Cranbury school board member, who requested anonymity. “I mean, maybe there’s a time and place for that, but I don’t think it’s in Cranbury.”

Cox said he will appeal his termination at next Tuesday’s board meeting.

Photo: Cranbury School gym teacher Sean Cox belts out a cover of “Let’s Get Physical” during a recent school function. Cox has not been hired back next year.

Local newspapers admit mixup in declaring Cranbury’s write-in Republican candidate

So much for fact checking.

On Wednesday morning, the day after New Jersey’s primary election, the Times of Trenton and the Star-Ledger reported that Arthur Hasselbach had received 47 write-in ballots to join the Republican ticket for November’s township committee (TC) election. Both papers have now corrected their reporting, noting it was David Hasselhoff, not Arthur Hasselbach, who cinched the write-in nomination.

Hasselhoff, the former star of hit television shows such as “Knight Rider” and “Baywatch,” has been a Cranbury resident since June 2009, when he purchased a unit in Cranbury’s Four Seasons 55+ community. (He is 58 years old.)

While many Cranbury residents were surprised to learn Hasselhoff was actually a Cranbury resident, few doubted his chances in November’s election.

“Its just really hard to to ignore his body of work,” said Glenn Johnson, the lone Democrat running in November’s TC election. “Just seeing his raw leadership abilities in action in all those Baywatch reruns makes you think: is there really anyone more qualified to help manage our town?”

Jay Taylor, a Republican on the TC, said he first met Hasselhoff while campaigning in Four Seasons last year.

“I was canvassing the Four Seasons club house when I happened to notice a middle-aged guy surrounded by about a dozen scantilly-clad ladies,” said Taylor. “I naturally assumed it was Win Cody, so imagine my surprise when I came to find out it was David Hasselhoff.”

Taylor said he has been a long-time fan of the star, and will campaign for him in the upcoming election.

“I just found my old Knight Rider boxer shorts in the attic, so I’m personally pretty excited to get out on the campaign trail again,” he said.

By his own admission, Hasselhoff spends little time in Cranbury. He said he uses his Four Seasons residence primarily “as a place to crash between my European drinking binges.”

Meanwhile, for Arthur Hasselbach, the former TC member, it quickly became time to wind-down the briefest of campaigns.

“I was really looking forward to dragging Glenn Johnson through proverbial mud, but I guess there’s always next year,” he said.

Coincidentally, Hasselbach admitted owning Hasselhoff’s 1989 album “Knight Love.”

“There’s some pretty good tracks on there,” he said. “It’s clear the guy has some real talent.”

Photo: News outlets have now confirmed David Hasselhoff, not Arthur Hasselbach, is the write-in Republican candidate for Cranbury Township Committee