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EATONTOWN, NJ-The Howard Commons military housing complex has been home for years to personnel of both Fort Monmouth, an Army base located here, and Earle Naval Weapons Station, which has its primary operations in nearby Middletown and Colts Neck. But personnel cuts at both facilities have reduced occupancy at Howard Commons to the point were the US Army considers it surplus property.

That’s considered good news by Eatontown officials who, while dismayed by the military cutbacks, see a silver lining in the fact that the site could soon be returned to the local tax rolls. That fact came one step closer to reality recently when the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development decided that the property couldn’t be used for homeless housing.

Under the Federal McKinney Act, non-profit groups that provide housing for low-income families or the homeless get first crack at any surplus military property, as long as the property is suitable for such use. In this case, HUD turned thumbs down because there are above-ground fuel tanks on adjacent sites. According to Federal regulations, such housing can’t be developed on federally owned land within 2,000 feet of permanent above-ground tanks that contain flammable liquids.

“Development of the site is very important to this community,” according to Eatontown Mayor Gerald Tarantolo. He adds that he has been given assurances by the appropriate Federal agencies that the city will have a say in what becomes of Howard Commons. At the same time, city officials have indicated that they will make the necessary zoning changes to accommodate a variety of uses.

Local officials say they envision mixed uses including, ironically, low- to moderate-income housing. Officials are targeting at least 100 such units, which would help the city meet its Mount Laurel requirements as mandated by the New Jersey Supreme court and the state legislature.

In any case, the city is expected to begin applying for the appropriate Federal and state grants and to name a planner over the next several months. A major mixed-use project is expected to emerge from the process.

Once the community has a concrete plan ready, the matter goes to the General Services Administration, which has jurisdiction. If the community-generated plan is approved, the GSA would put the Howard Commons tract up for bid.

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