CHATHAM, NJ - The Chatham Township Committee held an unprecedented five-hour virtual meeting on Thursday evening with public commentary cut off by the mayor toward the end of the first of four public hearings related to affordable housing Group Homes and the 62-unit development planned for River Road.

Chatham Township Mayor Michael Kelly opened the virtual Zoom conference meeting, which was also televised, with an explanation that the ordinances up for adoption would not be voted on until the June 25th meeting, with virtual public hearings set for May 28, June 11 and June 25.

Kelly said in his opening remarks that a presentation on Group Homes would be made by developer Nouvelle Homes at the May 28 meeting and that a presentation on the proposed River Road units would be made at the June 11 meeting, with opportunity by the public to ask questions.

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Mayor Michael Kelly outlined the public hearings and presentions on affordable housing

The Township has put forth ordinances to purchase three properties in the amount of $1,695,000 in its plan to meets its third-round obligation to provide affordable housing. Chatham Township is gearing toward a compliance hearing before Superior Court Judge Michael Gaus in late July or early August.

To that end, the committee is spending $650,000 to purchase a four-acre lot at 490 River Road as part of the 62-unit development.

“The purchase of the adjacent property expanding the site to nearly 10 acres will be a major improvement,” Kelly said in a published message on Tuesday. “Not only will it reduce the height of the proposed Affordable Housing building from five stories to three stories, the topography of the adjacent property will reduce the height and expense of retaining walls.”

The other expenditures include $530,0000 for the purchase of property at 76 Southern Boulevard and $515,000 for the property at 587 Fairmount Avenue - both for Group homes. 

"A third group home could be located at 344 Hillside Avenue where Sterling-Sun Homes has asked the Township to rezone property to create five lots across Hillside Avenue from the developer's Dixiedale Townhomes. One of those five lots could become available for a group home as part of Sterling-Sun's contribution to Affordable Housing," said Kelly in his update published Tuesday.

At one point in the meeting, there were about 45 people participating in the Zoom conferencing and there were a variety of objections heard by the committee on both the Group Homes and the 62-unit proposal on River Road.

Dan Miller of Green Village objected to moving forward with spending taxpayer money during the Coronavirus pandemic and expressed his concern about the effects of mass unemployment that has hit the nation.

"It's an abomination that we are moving forward in the face of the pandemic we have now," Miller said. "Is this really right, to push and push and push? We should tell the court that we are in no position whatsoever to move forward."

Alicia Murray of Southern Boulevard voiced her concern that the purchase of 76 Southern Boulevard for a Group Home would be 1200 feet from the Group Home at 371 Fairmount. 

"We're not spreading the Group Homes throughout the township," she said. "It doesn't seem to be a fair and equitable distribution."

Ashley Felice of Candace Lane who is running for a seat on the Township Committee, had a lot to say about the issue. She and her husband previously initiated a civil lawsuit to block the township from choosing the municipal building as a site for affordable housing. She objected to the format of holding a public meeting via Zoom conferencing. Her remarks to the committee are below.

I’d like to start by reiterating that I, as well as many other residents that have reached out to me during this COVID-19 quarantine are very disappointed that the Committee continues to push this agenda forward, full steam ahead, when the residents that are being severely impacted by these decisions don’t have the adequate opportunity to properly come forward and have their concerns heard.  

I do NOT believe the manner in which these impactful and non-essential decisions are being made satisfies the requirements of the open public meetings act.  I have read your opinion on it, and frankly I just think you are wrong.  I think you have twisted the various directives that have been given out by the State to conform to your agenda.  

- Telling Residents that Affordable Housing is an essential service, therefore we are obligated to continue to meet on these items is flat out inaccurate.   

- While construction of currently underway Affordable Housing Projects can be deemed essential and allowed to continue, that is not what is going on here. 

The fact that you guys refuse to request a stay on our township compliance with the 2018 Settlement Agreement until this epidemic is over and we can go back to business as usual is one of the most perplexing things I have seen yet come out of this committee.  

Approving a 12% tax increase to the residents as well as planning to deplete our three and a half million dollar surplus down to less than five hundred thousand dollars in a time when a global crisis will most likely have material impacts on the next 12 to 24 months of projected Revenue the township will need to operate, is completely irresponsible and most likely will lead to further tax increases on all residents for years to come.  

While other towns have halted all non-essential spending, you guys are out playing property developer, acquiring land all over town to fit the affordable housing agenda you decided was best for the Chatham Township, not one that is actually mandated by any law. 

The most recent proposal is the most concerning of all.  Acquiring more land on River Road to expand the footprint of your high density, multi-family all rental affordable housing development is going to have a lasting impact on the entire township.  It’s nice that the owner of the lot you are acquiring, is monetizing their asset and moving on, but what are you doing for the rest of the River Road Residents?  What are you doing for them?  Are you going to offer all of them cash payments for the difference in property value they will be left with after this is built?  Are you offering to have their properties reassessed and lower their taxes?  

Further to that, have you stopped to think about the long term impacts this development will have on the 2025 unmet need calculation?  

Now that there will most likely be adequate sewer lines installed along River Road you have essentially opened the entire ridge up to be developed into multi-family properties.  Do you think Fair Share Housing is not going to factor that into their demands in 2025 when they come back for round 4 of this ridiculousness?  By expanding the footprint of this development, you are screwing the current residents of River Road now and the rest of the township residents in 2025.  

I end on the plea I have made several times since this crisis has started, stop charging forward with this unpopular agenda during a time when the residents can’t give adequate input.  Don’t tell us that 4 more zoom meetings on the subject is adequate, because it is not.  Tell the judge that the township cannot comply with the current timeline of the settlement agreement that was entered into prior to the current global pandemic.  Everyone knows that is a factual statement and can’t be reasonably argued against.  If the worst thing that comes of it is he says no, at least you can then tell all of us you tried, but currently you can’t say that. I look forward to that message from the Mayor, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for it.  

Both Mayor Kelly and Deputy Mayor Tracy Ness pointed to an article published on North Jersey.com USA Network that reports that a judge stripped Englewood Cliffs' planning board of control over its affordable housing development. Kelly and Ness said that delays in the schedule that leads up to the late July, early August compliance hearing would jeopardize the township's immunity against builder's remedies.

"Englewood Cliffs has become the second municipality in the State to lose control of it Planning and Zoning process," Kelly said. "This is due to its failure to comply with Affordable Housing requirements."

Resident Mark Hamilton, also a candidate for a seat on the township committee, said the original ruling by the judge came in August of 2019 and that using Englewood Cliffs as an example of a ruling that could be handed down during the pandemic was not comparable to the township's situation.

"You can note that August 2019 decision was specifically predicated on the court’s finding that the town “acted in bad faith” and “engaged in a concerted effort to avoid compliance with its obligation,” Hamilton said. "Delaying public meetings on multi-million expenditures during a state of emergency (and continuing to work hard to evaluate alternative sites and engage with the public through alternative means) would not come anywhere close to that."

Jacquelyn Ferrito of River Road said that the committee was using affordable housing laws to state that the Township's Master Plan's protection for the steep slopes on River Road could be waived, but environmental laws were being used to rule out other proposed sites.

Heather Foran Yee of Huron Drive said the committee was not considering contingency plans for the River Road development if the state DEP blocked the construction on the steep slopes. See her letter to the editor HERE.

The Chatham Township Planning Board will hold a virtual meeting set for Monday, May 18 at 7:30 p.m. Affordable housing issues on the agenda:

MASTER PLAN CONSISTENCY REVIEW OF THE FOLLOWING ORDINANCE(S) INTRODUCED BY THE TOWNSHIP COMMITTEE: ORDINANCE 2020-04 – AMENDED REDEVELOPMENT PLAN

An ordinance of the Township of Chatham, County of Morris, State of New Jersey, amending Ordinance 2018-22 which adopted a redevelopment plan for a 3.8 acre portion of Block 48.16, Lot 117.27 for the development of low and moderate income housing to amend the redevelopment plan to provide that the redevelopment area consists of two (2) parts, Part A consisting of 1.04 acres to be conveyed to Southern Boulevard Urban Renewal, LLC and Part B consisting of 2.76 acres to be retained by the Township of Chatham 7.

DISCUSSION:

AUTHORIZING PLANNING BOARD PLANNER TO UNDERTAKE A PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION FOR THE REDEVELOPMENT OF BLOCK 62, LOTS 70 & 71 AS SET FORTH BY RESOLUTION 2020-126

A resolution of the Township Committee of the Township of Chatham, County of Morris, State of New Jersey, authorizing the Township of Chatham Planning Board to undertake a preliminary investigation for the redevelopment of land known as Block 62, Lot 70 and Block 62, Lot 71 as shown on the Township of Chatham Tax Map

REFERRING REQUEST REZONE OF 344 HILLSIDE AVENUE OF BLOCK 67, LOTS 17 & 17.01 AS SET FORTH BY RESOLUTION 2020-127

A resolution of the Township Committee of the Township of Chatham, County of Morris, State of New Jersey, authorizing the Township of Chatham Planning Board to undertake a rezone request for the land known as Block 67, Lot 17 and Block 67, Lot 17.01 as shown on the Township of Chatham Tax Map