CHATHAM, NJ - The Chatham Township Planning Board voted, 5-4, to recommend that the Chatham Township Committee rezone 344 Hillside Avenue, allowing for an affordable housing Group Home to be built on one of five lots during its 3 1/2-hour virtual meeting held Monday night.

Last year, the planning board denied the request by the same developer Sterling-Sun Homes to rezone the two lots at 344 Hillside into four lots. The request was deemed not consistent with the Master Plan because it was too "intensive". Although five lots were also not consistent with the Master Plan, the benefits of the four-bedroom Group Home carried the "Yes" votes.

Chatham Township Mayor Michael Kelly pointed out before the vote that the approval of the rezoning would benefit the township in four ways: 1-socially, with the inclusion of the Group Home for mentally and physically challenged adults; 2-legally, by helping it meet its settlement agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center; 3-financially, by saving the township $600,000 it would have to use for the purchase of land if it was not provided by Sterling-Sun Homes in exchange for the rezoning, and 4-an expanded conservation easement with the reduced setback of 30 feet.

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Voting for the recommendation were vice-chairman Thomas Franko, committee member Stacey Ewald, administrator Robert Hoffmann, Mayor Michael Kelly and Glen Nelson. Voting no were chairman Don Travisano, Deniz Ozdemir, Nicole Hagner and Peter Coviello.

The rezoning also allows for a 30-foot setback on the five lots. Normally a 50-foot setback is required. Each lot is at least 100 feet wide. According to Chatham Township Engineer John Ruschke, rezoning from R-1 to R-3 makes it consistent with the zoning regulations in Chatham Borough, which the land in question borders.

"The (affordable housing) settlement provided for a number of Group Homes to be built," Chatham Township Planner Frank Banisch said before the vote. "This land would be very valuable toward meeting the township's obligation. It's not beyond the purview of the board to weigh which is important."

After the vote, the board headed into executive session and then returned to complete its public session. As soon as it returned, the board put forth a motion to force the recusal of board member Hagner from discussion and votes concerning the River Road affordable housing development. The vote went against Hagner, 7-2, and she was removed from the virtual meeting as a member. Former mayor Hagner is a resident of River Road.

Huron Drive Resident Tom Tether raised his hand in the zoom meeting during public commentary and said he was "quite disturbed with what I just saw" in relation to the vote against Hagner.

Steven K. Warner, planning board attorney, said that the recusal was taken up in the executive session and, by law, the reason for the forced recusal cannot be revealed.  

River Road resident Jaquelyn Ferrito questioned whether it was a conflict of interest for Mayor Kelly and administrator Hoffmann, who she said negotiated the affordable housing court settlement, to vote on these issues as planning board members.

Warner explained that it was completely appropriate for them to vote as governing body members and mayors, who are expected to take public positions when not serving on the board.

"I want to reassure that no decision has been made by this planning board (ahead of time)," chairman Travisano, also a resident of River Road, said. "Everyone on this board is independent and everything we handle is thorough and objective."

In other business, the planning board authorized planner Banisch to begin the preliminary investigation of Lots 70 and 71 on River Road as an "area in need of non-condemnation redevelopment," the first step toward designating the area for a 62 affordable housing units on those lots.

The planning board also found that it was not inconsistent with the Master Plan for the Chatham Township Committee to amend an ordinance that allows it to reacquire the 2.76 acres on which the skate park is located and separate it from the 1.04 acres that it "conveyed" to Southern Boulevard Urban Renewal for the Arbor Green at Chatham affordable housing development.