To the Editor:
Dixiedale is a Bad Deal for the Township
The Dixiedale deal is a major element in the Chatham Township planning for affordable housing. It is hailed by Township officials as a major achievement. While on the surface it may appear to be advantageous, the collateral damage it has inflicted on the remainder of the Township’s plans for affordable housing calls this into question. I believe that the Dixiedale issue should be revisited.
The Dixiedale Deal
The Dixiedale property is a large tract of land to the North of River Road across the street from the Chatham Glen condo development. The owner of the property, Mrs. Betsie Harr, had an offer from Toll Brothers to build a 500-home development under a “builder’s remedy” which over-rides any Township zoning restrictions. However, wishing to retain the country-like ambiance of her family’s former Averett Estate, she chose instead to sell the property to Stirling Properties which proposed a development of 53 luxury condos in a park-like setting. Township officials were overjoyed with this decision and proceeded to lavish subsidies on Stirling. They agreed to let Stirling build a 24-unit affordable housing development, called Arbor Green, on the Township owned Skate Board site. In addition, they gave the developer the land (valued at about $1.5M) at no cost and agreed to a real estate tax abatement (estimated to be worth about $75k per year) as well.
However, there are associated problems with this deal. The Harr properties were evaluated in the December 2018 Settlement Agreement as contributing 50 units of affordable housing to the total of 98 units yet to be provided by the Township. By allowing Stirling to locate only 24 affordable housing units on the Skate Board site, Stirling off-loaded 26 of the 50-unit Harr property obligation onto the Township to fulfill. In addition, the Township gave away land that is now desperately needed to fulfill its obligation to provide the remaining 74 units of affordable housing.
A Better Dixiedale Deal
A more reasonable Dixiedale deal would require the developer to satisfy all of the 50 affordable housing unit obligation on the Dixiedale property. This would free up the Skate Board site to be used by the Township to provide its own 24-unit affordable housing development. Then, of the original 98-unit requirement, 50 would be provided at Dixiedale and 24 would be provided at the Skate Park – leaving only 24 units for the Township to provide elsewhere. At Township Committee meetings on affordable housing, citizens have overwhelmingly expressed a desire to have a multi-site plan which distributes affordable housing around the Township in a broadly acceptable manner. To that end and using only properties currently owned by the Township, a 4-unit home for individuals with special needs could be built on Gibbons Place, 8 to 10 units of affordable housing could be sited on the Municipal Building property, and 10 to 12 units could be located on the steeply sloped River Road property acquired for affordable housing. While this allocation satisfies the full 98-unit requirement and also works within the Township imposed constraint of only using Township owned properties, there are other options which one might consider.
If the Police Department were to be moved to the Municipal Building, that would free up the vacated Police Department site and the Skate Park would not have to be moved. This option has the advantage of reducing the operating cost required to maintain both the Police Department building and the Municipal Building. However, possibly a more important consideration to a number of residents in the Southern Boulevard area is the loss of a feeling of security by not having the Police Station located near the Township schools. Their concern is that should there be a major incident at one of the schools it would be advantageous to have the Police Department located nearby. The Township employs a system of having officers constantly on patrol to be able to quickly respond to a minor incident in any area of the Township. For the most part, there are no significant resources at the Police Station to respond to a major incident. The plan is to have area-wide resources respond to any major incident. But that does create a concern about the response time for such an incident. It does not appear to be possible to easily resolve this conflict between economy and security.
The cost of providing a small number of affordable housing units at the River Road site is also a troubling issue. To provide sewer service for the 10 to 12 units of affordable housing, the Township would have to spend about $1.7M to extend the Township sewer system along River Road. That is not particularly attractive but is a condition imposed if the Township is only willing to use land that they currently own. A much better option would be to spend a good deal less than the $1.7M to purchase land for the 10 to 12 units. This would provide the opportunity to acquire property near Chatham Square that would be a much more suitable location for low-income people who do not have their own means of transportation. Extending the Township sewer system along River Road is also undesirable in that it opens a number of steeply sloped properties to development and requires property owners to connect to the new sewer system whether they want to or not.
Dixiedale Impact on Schools
One of the main selling points for the Dixiedale deal is that the owners of luxury condos are not expected to have children who would attend the Chatham schools. Thus, they would contribute to the support of the schools through high taxes without entailing any cost. This is an attractive prospect if one ignores the cost to the Township to achieve this benefit. To reinforce their arguments in favor of the deal, Township officials conjure up a vision of the school system being burdened if lower-cost condos were to be developed on the Dixiedale property. Let’s look at the prospect for this happening.
The roughly 900 unit Chatham Glen condo development is just across River Road from the Dixiedale property and there is an adjacent 92 unit Vernon Grove affordable housing development. I contacted the Board of Education and was informed that 37 students attending Chatham schools are from these two developments. Here is an interesting calculation. If all 37 students were from Chatham Glen and each of the 900 Chatham Glen condos were to sell for an estimated average of $300k, then the real estate value for each student is $7.3M per student. If someone builds a $1.2M house and a family with two children move in, the real estate value per student is $600k. Are we concerned about a flood of children coming from expensive single-family homes? No! Then why are we so concerned about a sizable moderate income condo development on the Dixiedale property if most of the people who are likely to live in those condos are either empty nesters, singles or couples without children?
Dixiedale Development Density
One advantage of the Dixiedale deal that is difficult to overcome is the reduced density of development on the Dixiedale property. The Dixiedale allocation of 50 units of affordable housing corresponds to 20% of a 250-home development that is recognized in the 2018 Settlement Agreement as the full potential for the property. This number of homes at the Dixiedale site would certainly not be welcomed by people in the area and would undoubtedly lead to increased road congestion in the area. However, if one buys a home in the neighborhood of a large tract of land located in a developing community, one can only expect that such land will be developed eventually. That eventuality has arrived. And requirements for affordable housing have arrived. It should not be incumbent on other residents of the Township to relieve the discomfort felt by the community local to Dixiedale. If the Township agreed that Dixiedale has a development potential of 250 homes, then that is what is should be. Residents of other parts of the Township should not be required to tolerate large concentrations of affordable housing to make people in the Dixiedale neighborhood feel better.
Modified Dixiedale Deal
It may be too late in the Township’s affordable housing planning to undo the Dixiedale deal. However, it may still be possible to modify it so as to ameliorate the damage that the deal has done to the Township’s capability to meet the remaining 74 affordable housing unit requirement. The Township and Fair Share Housing are currently engaged in a court-mandated mediation process to resolve remaining affordable housing issues. As a remedy, I propose that the Special Master overseeing the court-mandated mediation process demand that the Dixiedale developer, Stirling Properties, be required to provide 26 affordable housing units as part of the Dixiedale development. This would leave only 48 units to be provided by Chatham Township, a significant reduction given the limited development potential of properties available to the Township. It has been recognized that there is a scarcity of developable land in Chatham Township which can be used to meet the affordable housing requirements. It would seem to be only proper to have the Dixiedale property be used to provide its fair share of affordable housing.