BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - "It's a great day for Berkeley Heights," said Councilman Marc Faecher about last week's decision by Union County Superior Court to provide the township with a Judgment of Compliance and Repose approving the township's Fair Share Plan with regard to the township's strategic plan for affordable housing.
"The court agreed with us and the work we have done," said Faecher. "The Judgement of Repose (JOR) has been issued." He said the court issued the JOR and was very complimentary of the township and considered Berkeley Heights to be a role model for all the towns that have come before her.
The approval is subject to two conditions.
The first condition involves moving forward on the projects that have been discussed over the years. In particular, "adopting the Ordinance for the Connell Property, finalizing the Redevelopment Agreements for Locust Avenue development and adopting the Redevelopment Plan for Hamilton," said Township Attorney Jospeh Sordillo. These items need to be "cleaned up" by December 18, 2017.
With regard to The Connell Company, Faecher said Connell had previously paid approximately $2.5M in the form of a Regional Contribution Agreement (RCA), to Newark in a prior round that was credited to the Township for its Affordable Housing obligation.
With the office market throughout New Jersey drying up, Connell came to the Township looking to make some changes, said Faecher. He addressed concerns that citizens have raised regarding the development. The property had been zoned for an office building with 260,000 square feet of space and a parking garage. "The truth is, it had been approved for all of this development, just the market reality is such that we are changing some of those uses to include residential and retail use."
When they sought to change the property use from Office to Residential/Retail, "we said that that's all well and good, but we think there should be some additional affordable units on that property, even though that RCA had taken place," said Faecher.
Faecher said the outcome of their discussions included the addition of 37 units to their original RCA. "This amendment adds an additional 8 units of affordable housing. This helps revitalize the property and get it redeveloped in accordance to market realities today in New Jersey. It also helps us satisfy our Affordable Housing obligation."
Faecher also reviewed the Redevelopment Plan for the Hamilton Avenue property that was adopted at last week's meeting. The plan includes 100 townhouse-type units for sale with 80 being sold for market rate and 20 for affordable housing, said Faecher.
The second group of conditions are with our future objectives, said township attorney Sordillo. "The proposed development on Springfield Avenue and the Mill Creek [MCRT] looking to develop the old Spatz property behind the Kings property. We advised the court that we are in further negotiations with them and we are close to an agreement, however, we are not there."
Sordillo added, "We have until December 4 to settle or not settle. The JOR [Judgement of Repose] will be issued as final without further conditions -- provided that we have complied with other conditions of approval and won’t be subject to further conditions."
If we don’t settle, she set forth a continuation hearing date on December 18 where they [MCRT] can present their objections, limited to the objections that they presented to the court with regard to the development to the site they’re referring to. They can’t open up the entire JOR."
Sordillo confirmed that the first group of conditions are moving along and he said the Township will satisfy all conditions. "The other conditions, we have a deadline of December 18."
With the JOR, the town gets blanket protection of lawsuits. "So if additional properties become due, we can waive the Judgement of Repose --- we are not obligated to accept increased density for purposes of Affordable Housing because we have an approved [JOR] by the court and we get that protection. That is a huge outcome and shield and benefit for the town," said Faecher.
Faecher listed the takeaways of the process, "This process was incredibly complicated, costly and most importantly risky for the township. It had the potential to damage and change our town for the worst.
"The state government absolutely dropped the ball on this. The legislature and Governor did not get together and it was left to each individual town, by county, to resolve. Incredibly inefficient and costly and did not do any favors to any municipalities.
"I am proud of the town, the way we came through this. We started with 860 units, we ended up with a number far less than that, around 360. But the number of units that need to be built are far less than that. The number went down today as a result of the total number of overall units that need to be built."
Faecher thanked all the parties involved including Mayor Bob Woodruff and the council, Township Attorney Joe Sordillo, Township Administrator John Bussiculo, Township Planner Mike Mistretta and his planning team with Harbor Consultants, and Erik Nolan, an associate with Jeffrey R. Surenian Associates, the firm assisting the Township with Fair Housing legislation and litigation.
"Let's see these projects through," said Faecher. "We didn’t accept the minimum -- they are much higher end projects at lower densities. We have been dealt a bad hand and made lemonade out of lemons."
Mayor Woodruff commended Faecher as the leader that has driven the Affordable Housing settlement. "He should be recognized as such. -- I have great respect for what he has done here and I’m sure I speak for everybody on the council."
"It’s your state government at its worst," said Woodruff. He said that they will do their best to deal with the changes that will effect safety, schools and infrastructure issues. "So, we ask all of you as citizens to understand that there will be some changes. But, in the long run we are in pretty good shape. I want to personally thank Marc."