BERNARDS TWP., NJ - After hearing presentations by two developers, and hours of critique from a standing-room-only crowd of residents, the Bernards Township Committee narrowly voted on Tuesday night to select a proposal to construct 62 state-required affordable housing units among 280 apartments and townhouses at the far end of Mountainview Boulevard. The housing would be built near the Memorial Sloan Kettering facility.
The township needed to come up with a solution for closing the gap in order to settle its housing quota with a lawsuit brought by a housing group against Bernards, and other municipalities around the state, seeking to provide zoning for less expensive housing within its borders.
The alternative was a plan by K & K Developers to construct 186 housing units, including the same number of low- to moderate-income units, 62, on just over nine acres on Valley Road, between the Cedars development and three single-family homes. The property now has two homes and is mostly wooded.
Mayor John Carpenter, who cast one of the 3-2 votes in favor of the proposal, said, "This is one of the least satisfying things I have ever worked on because there's no win."
Township Committeeman James Baldassare, who also voted yes on the proposal, added, "This is what needs to be done...It's court-mandated."
The three who favored a proposal by SJP Properties for for a maximum of 280 residential units with conceptual plans posted online, said they felt the density of 20 units per acre on the Valley Road property was just too high.
The SJP development, which would need to be approved by the township Planning Board to be built, is proposed for about 71 acres, now an office zone, situated at the end of Mountainview Boulevard.
At the next meeting, scheduled for 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 28, the Township Committee will introduce a measure to change the office zoning to permit residential development on the 71-acre SJP property, and to offer the rezoning as a settlement for the lawsuit filed by the statewide Fair Share Housing Center, Carpenter said. The state affordable housing initiative has always been about rezoning to provide an opportunity for affordable housing to be built, not guaranteeing its construction, he said.
The developer has pledged to build the housing in lieu of two office buildings for which SJP already received Planning Board approval in 2007. The project proposed would include 280 residential units, including 220 apartment units and 60 townhouse units at a density of approximately 3.9 units per acre, according to SJP, with the 62 low- to moderate-income units mixed within the apartments. Access to all of the residential units would be via Mountainview Boulevard.
Township Committeewoman Carolyn Gaziano said she favored neither proposal. She said that while the SJP property is more hidden than the Valley Road project, "That's a lot of housing and that's a lot of school kids."
Gaziano said she believed a proposal for housing and other development on 180 acres at the now-defunct Millington Quarry would have been a better plan for the township, and would have provided public access to a lake as well as a larger property to accommodate the construction.
Township Committeewoman Carol Bianchi called for the committee vote to be delayed until the Township Committee's Aug. 28 meeting to give time for some questions to be addressed and for possible changes in the plan, such as changing some of the rental units to owner-occupied housing.
Several speakers said that they had only learned about the proposal a day or so earlier. The township had announced the names of the developers and posted the proposals online last Friday.
"It's the middle of August -- notice of this came out last Friday," said resident Rita Zarabara, who also noted that some township families are also taking students to college. She said it would be "a shame" for the Township Committee to vote for the proposal on Tuesday night.
Township Attorney John Belardo said that the township has court "immunity" until Sept. 30 from lawsuits from other developers seeking to build affordable housing as part of larger developments. He said that the judge in charge of the case could extend immunity after that date, but there is no guarantee.
Ann Parsekian, a former Planning Board member, asked how the two developers who presented their proposals had been selected. She also asked what alternatives to developer-driven projects with additional housing had been considered by the township, such as subsidizing "accessory" units in existing homes, or seeking out a group dedicated to constructing affordable housing alone.
"Builders are looking for opportunities to build," Carpenter responded. He said the two developers had approached the township with proposals for constructing the final 62 units.
Carpenter added that township officials had looked at municipal properties, but were not inclined to build on open space. He said the township was also reluctant to back a group and be left responsible if that group defaulted.
Township residents might have benefited from seeing a report with the township's research, Parsekian added.
Township officials said at the meeting that they recently learned that Bernards Township will have to provide well over 800 affordable housing units for the most recent round of state-required low to moderate income units.
However, except for the 62 homes that would be part of the Mountainview development, the other units have already been either built or on the drawing board, including such projects as housing for veterans at the Veterans Administration's Lyons campus, for which the township just contributed a $750,000 loan, according to township officials.
However, even once the township closes the gap for this round of affordable housing, it is expected that municipalities will be required to plan for another round by 2025, according to township officials, including Belardo.