To the Editor:
I want to begin by thanking Mayor Kelly for apologizing and accepting responsibility for the incident that occurred last week concerning the land surveyors who had traversed my property without permission and without PPE. I appreciate his public acknowledgment and apology.
With that said, I want to comment further on the Township meeting last night since residents were given limited time to express their opinions and have a meaningful dialogue on the affordable housing issue that is being rushed through by this Committee.
I could imagine that given my vocal stance on this issue some might think that I am against affordable housing in the Township. This could not be further from the truth. Although I disagree with the Township’s constant threat and mischaracterization of the Englewood Cliffs case (which is now on appeal after they fired their attorneys), I do not disagree that we have to satisfy this obligation and that it is, in fact, something incumbent upon us as a community to resolve. I agree with the Committee characterization that, after this, more New Jersey residents might need this housing option. And I, for one, know that anyone can fall on bad times even if you don’t believe so; it is possible for anyone. Speaking from personal experience, I grew up with a single mother and, at one point, we utilized affordable housing. And thanks to that school system I ended up being the first person in my family to go to college. There were other factors involved, and we saw better times later in life that also impacted my trajectory. But I truly understand the importance this decision can have on a child who needs a chance for a better school system.
It is not the obligation that is the issue with me; it is the method of execution.
Last night was another example of how this Committee keeps throwing up ideas like darts on a dartboard and hoping one of them lands the bullseye. During the discussion on group homes, the Committee noted that they arrived on the Southern Boulevard designations because another considered property had issues with steep slopes and environmental concerns that would require the Committee to essentially violate too many Chatham ordinances. It was for these reasons they rejected the Gibbons Road property.
Yet, this same Committee continues to pursue the River Road property for an apartment complex (which has significantly more impact than a ranch style home) even though River Road has the steepest slopes in all of Chatham and is an essential greenway for migrating species heading towards the Great Swamp. The Mayor did not know the slope of River Road but yet he knows that this area has been called out in the Chatham Master Plan and the Environmental Survey as being a critical habitat that the township should protect at all costs. These are the Township’s own words. Even the township’s own engineer, John Ruschke, noted that a critically threatened species uses this as its habitat. Mr. Ruschke also noted that this is just one of the threatened or endangered species that may be in this area. They don’t know because the Committee, nor its consultants, haven’t done anything but a cursory review of the materials on the NJDEP website. So neither he nor the Committee, know the extent of the habitat that will be destroyed by this development.
What does this all mean? It means that to build on River Road the Township will have to essentially abandon the Master Plan and violate multiple ordinances. They were unwilling to do that at Gibbons Road for a ranch house because of a slight slope but are more than willing to do that at River Road.
What does this in legal terms amount to? Discriminatory zoning practices. Committees must apply ordinances equally and in the same manner. As pointed out by the many residents on Southern Boulevard and River Road, all the affordable housing is being lumped in one area and not spread out in the Township. And further, different sets of rules are applying to different areas. If Mayor Kelly doesn’t like the zoning ordinances he ignores them and tells constituents affordable housing rules trump all ordinances. But that is apparently not always the case as in Gibbons Road or at the skatepark.
When I asked the Township if they had alternatives should the Planning Board reject these Affordable Housing proposals I received no response. What happens if the Planning Board realizes that they will have to violate the Master Plan and NJDEP guidance to build on the steep slope and heavily forested area of River Road? What happens if they find a critical habitat and have to alter their plans (not one study has been conducted yet on this area that for years residents were unable to build on because of the threat of erosion and habitat destruction)? What happens if a citizen suit is brought on behalf of the preservation of the Passaic River because this development impacts the sediment load because of the documented issues with stormwater and erosion management in this area? (And contrary to Deputy Mayor Ness, this is not similar to Dixiedale. This is a true conduit-- not a secondary source that flows from groundwater.) What happens if NJDEP steps in and protects this area as a true wetland recharge area, or we find a blue-spotted salamander in the vernal pool on Lot #70?
The Committee had no response because they have not stopped for one minute to look at alternatives. They have stopped looking and assume that the Planning Board is going to rubber-stamp this decision. If they didn’t believe that they would still be considering alternatives. Instead, they are taking the word of a developer that they can build no matter what. And that’s true. You can build no matter what. But at what consequences?
When we asked about alternatives and the logical decision to place the affordable housing at Hickory Place Square, or in that vicinity, Deputy Mayor Ness criticized the resident that asked and stated that they “would not prey on Chatham businesses” during this time by asking if they were willing to sell.
Deputy Mayor Ness was right: They’ve only done that to their residents! This Committee approached two residents on River Road during a pandemic to sell their houses. Is it a surprise that one of them said “yes” when the Township offered them over assessed value for their home during a pandemic and looming economic depression? I ask everyone: Is it more reprehensible to approach a business or a resident with an offer they couldn’t get on the open market at this time?
Forget arguing about the useless format of Zoom calls and the fact that it doesn't satisfy regulatory requirements for public meetings. This Committee has gone one step further: Refusing to listen to reason, science, and their own constituents amounts to an invalidation of this entire decision. It means that all citizens of Chatham Township can join in a class action against the Committee for these discriminatorily applied decisions which would impact the Committee's selection designation and, consequently, impact their builder. What builder would want to take that risk in this economy?
I would urge the Committee to reconsider alternatives or else face wasting more of our taxpayers' dollars on useless properties that may sit vacant for years when they are forced to accept alternative locations. Or, further yet, waste more of our money paying Attorney Cruz for litigation costs to fight against its own citizens.
In closing, why is Englewood Cliffs bad? They are fighting for their citizens! And they are retaining new counsel to do just that! Maybe this Township Committee should consider the same approach in hiring counsel that will work for them and us as residents instead of regaling us with horror stories and frightening the public into thinking we have no options. When I was in private practice I never told my client “no” -- instead, I found ways to use the law to their advantage. There are plenty of attorneys that will do that and steer us down a path of success. I am happy to provide the Committee with references.
Heather Foran Yee
127 Huron Drive