BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Despite opposition from neighbors and "no" votes cast by two members of the governing body, the creation of a new multifamily housing zone that can accommodate up to 280 new housing units was approved by a 3-2 vote of the Township Committee on Tuesday night.

The vote came after several neighbors of SJP Properties' proposed development on 70 acres off private Mountain View Boulevard complained they had been "blindsided" by the proposal, first unveiled at the Aug. 14 meeting. Speakers also insisted that 280 housing units, including a five-story apartment building, would forever impact their neighborhood and the town as a whole.

"It's going to dramatically change our neighborhood," said neighbor David Bell. He and other residents said they had only recently learned about the project, and related resolutions approved on Aug. 28, when they said many people had been out of town. 

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If the project is built--after undergoing review by the Township Planning Board--the development would include construction of 62 units of state-ordered affordable housing that, combined with other affordable housing either planned or built, would be enough to fulfill the township's quota through 2025, township officials previously said

The next step is a fairness hearing before state Judge Thomas Miller, said Mayor John Carpenter, who cast one of the three votes needed to approve the zone change, and also settle a lawsuit from a statewide housing group forcing communities around New Jersey to zone for low- and moderate-income housing.

No one in the nearly full meeting room on Tuesday night praised the project, which could be built instead of 344,000-square feet of office space already given township approval for the property near the existing Memorial Sloan Kettering Center at the end of the private road.

"We don't want a five-story building in our backyards," said another neighbor, Suzanne Glassman. After the meeting, she said she would have liked to have seen affordable housing spread out throughout the town.

Prior to casting her "no" vote, Township Committeewoman Carol Bianchi said she would have preferred for Bernards to take an approach similar to that in neighboring Far Hills Borough, which has been holding a series of public meetings offering detailed looks at different proposals for developments that would include low- to moderate-income housing.

Township Committeewoman Carolyn Gaziano, who also voted against the zone change, said she would have preferred a previously proposed development at the defunct Millington Quarry, which she said would have included the affordable housing among fewer market units, along with commercial development and public amenities such as trails and a lake.

"The quarry is a huge hole in the ground close to a train and bus station," Gaziano said.

The three Township Committee members who voted to approve the zoning change also said they would not choose to zone for construction of the 280 housing units.

"I agree with almost all of everything that everyone said," Township Committeeman James Baldassare told the audience. But he said that because of the state's requirement for affordable housing, "We have to change the zoning."

"At a very minimum, delay a vote so we have time to properly address what going to go on in this town," Bell asked committee members prior to the vote.

At an earlier meeting in August, Township Attorney John Belardo told the public 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.

Deputy Mayor John Malay said he was voting for the zone change because the township is trying to "avert a series of disasters down the road," such as facing multiple lawsuits from developers seeking to construct large developments with lesser numbers of affordable housing mixed in. But he added, "Choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing a bad outcome."Carpenter urged residents to contact all of their representatives in Trenton to ask for a fairer and more public implementation of affordable housing planning.

Nevertheless, several of the residents said they felt that township officials had backed the interests of the developer, who reportedly has been asking for a zone change to build housing on the site for years.

Carpenter said that officials began to listen more carefully to the developer's proposal when it became apparent that the municipality had to close the gap in order to meet a "round three" quota for 873 affordable housing units, including some already built.

On Aug. 14, the Township Committee also heard another developer's plan for construction of 186 housing units, which also would have encompassed 62 affordable units, on about nine acres off Valley Road. 

Carpenter, Baldassare and Malay, who also voted in favor of the SJP proposal with conceptual plans posted online, said at that time they felt the density of 20 units per acre on the Valley Road property was just too high. 

Resident Bill Allen, who was serving on the Township Committee when statewide affordable housing lawsuits were first filed in the mid-1970s, said Bernards has always been at the forefront in providing such housing. He said he would have preferred for the township to purchase some existing housing, and to turn it into income-restricted units.

Allen also said that the township has always shied away from building multifamily housing south of Route 78. He said that children in affordable units might not be able to easily travel to the schools, libraries and other community activities that could be as far away as a 20 minutes' drive.

Another resident, Karen Natale, said that police traveling from the police headquarters in downtown Basking Ridge can take 25 to 30 minutes to reach the streets south of Route 78.

Neighboring streets include Primrose Lane, Emerald Valley Lane, Van Holten Road and Pacer Court. Other residents said Mountain Avenue also would be impacted by traffic.