To the Editor:
A new Chatham Township meeting, a new group of angry residents blind-sided by a Committee decision. I couldn’t help but think of the movie "Groundhog Day" last Thursday night when listening to angry residents voice their opposition to Mayor Kelly’s and the Committee’s latest plan to purchase homes at 76 Southern Boulevard and 587 Fairmount Avenue and improve municipal property located on Gibbons Place for use as group homes for affordable housing.
The objections included many of the same ones previously raised by River Road residents in February (in response to the unexpected selection of that site, under threat of condemnation no less) for a monstrous 5-story affordable housing complex, as well as those raised just two-months before in December by residents near Meyersville Road (in response to the similarly surprising selection of the municipal building as a potential affordable housing site). Once again, our Mayor and Committee were taken to task by residents for providing inadequate notice (and no real opportunity for input) to residents of the pending decision, as well as the lack of a transparent and robust site selection process, seemingly arbitrary decisions to purchase residential property with Township funds, poor long-term city planning in the selection of affordable housing sites, the unnecessary financial waste contemplated by their proposed affordable housing plans and their insistence on pushing an affordable housing agenda in the midst of a global pandemic (notwithstanding the fact that Zoom, which severely limits residents’ ability to question and provide input into this process, is clearly an improper and inadequate forum for such meetings), among other concerns.
Even worse, however, is that, instead of receiving open and substantive responses to their questions and concerns, once again, residents were met with misleading statements by our elected officials about the Township’s affordable housing obligations to justify continued activity while most of the rest of the country is understandably shut-down.
In just one pertinent example, in response to residents repeated requests to delay affordable housing matters until in-person meetings can be held and the worst of the pandemic has passed, Township Committee members repeatedly told residents that they are required to continue holding meetings through the Zoom platform, notwithstanding its limitations, because the State of New Jersey has deemed the building of affordable housing to be an “essential service” that must continue. However, upon close examination, the legal citation that is being referenced by the Committee to support this assertion is an exception to an Executive Order by Governor Murphy to cease non-essential ongoing construction to enforce social distancing. In other words, Governor Murphy is saying in this order that ongoing affordable housing construction is not required to be shut down but may continue (with limitations and in the judgment of local governments).
This in no way requires the Township of Chatham to do anything, let alone continue to hold Township Planning and Committee Meetings on affordable housing. In fact, the law cited is not in any way related to the holding of municipal meetings in compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act (which clearly does not fall within the purview of Executive Orders on construction). Are you kidding, Mayor Kelly and Committee members? I personally find it deeply disappointing to watch our neighbors, on top of everything else on their plates in this challenging Covid environment, attempt to participate in an important process that will have meaningful long-term effects on their homes and neighborhoods only to be misled or ignored by their elected officials. It is difficult to determine whether Mayor Kelly and the Committee members are misinformed on these issues or are being intentionally misleading to push through an unpopular affordable housing agenda while residents are preoccupied, but either possibility does not reflect well on them.
To clarify the Township’s affordable housing obligations, the last implementation schedule ordered by the Court gave the Township Committee a unilateral right to extend all deadlines to address the COVID-19 health and public safety crisis. Mayor Kelly and the Township Committee are well aware of this right but continue to be surprisingly unwilling to use it. In fact, they recently reference this provision in their April 21st request for a revised compliance and implementation schedule in the ongoing Fair Share Housing Center matter. This request was submitted to address the civil suit filed by Carmela Sagendorf objecting to, among other things, improper notice to residents in the selection of the River Road affordable housing site (you see - Groundhog Day!). For those of you unfamiliar with the suit, Carmela Sagendorf, a 60-plus year resident of Chatham Township whose family has a long history of serving as volunteer firefighters in the town, was one of many River Road residents blind-sided by Mayor Kelly’s and the Township Committee’s decision in February to put a 5-story affordable housing complex essentially in her backyard.
While Mayor Kelly and the Committee have attempted to paint this request for a schedule change as an example of their responsiveness to residents’ concerns about Covid, this is clearly not the case. Our Mayor and Committee proposed a timeline that delays key dates on the River Road matter just enough to permit the Township to address the notice issue raised in Carmela’s civil suit and no longer. In fact, the hearing on Carmela’s suit scheduled for June 11th is repeatedly cited in the request as the driving factor in the proposed schedule (not Covid). Perhaps most conclusively, no other affordable housing matters were requested to be postponed by the Mayor and our Committee. If the Mayor and Committee were truly addressing the many Covid concerns raised by residents, then they would have requested a delay in the implementation schedule for all affordable housing matters until residents have an adequate opportunity to participate. For the residents near the proposed group home sites wondering why the hearings on those sites weren’t similarly delayed (but rather were held last Thursday via Zoom and will be finalized in mid-May), here is your answer.
If our elected officials will not do the right thing for the right reasons, then I hope that they will at least take a warning from the local government in Montclair. On April 17th, Essex County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey R. Beacham issued a Temporary Restraining Order enjoining the Township of Montclair from instituting its recently enacted rent control law, in pertinent part, to enable residents and other interests the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process, which right was denied by the Covid crisis. This ruling has been described by Charles Gormally, the attorney who represented the Committee of Petitioners, as “a warning to all municipalities who, under the cover of emergency, would seek to pass politically-motivated legislation at a time when the public, both practically and legally, is deprived of its right to express itself or mount challenge.”
I implore Mayor Kelly and our Committee either as a matter of conscience, or due to this example of the potential consequences of continuing to push this agenda in the current environment, to request a delay of all affordable housing matters until in-person meetings can again be held and residents can adequately exercise their right to participate.
One final big picture thought - taking a step back – that we shouldn’t lose sight of: The concerns of residents listed above that are now being voiced all over our Township are more than justified. Whatever your political views, or thoughts on site selection might be, we can (and should) all agree that the process imposed upon us by our elected officials has been opaque, inadequate, void of resident input and riddled with flaws.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this flawed process has produced the selection of sites that make no sense either for the welfare of residents who live around them, future residents who will move into the complexes or the long-term benefit of our Township. A prime example of this is the proposed placement of a 5-story affordable housing complex on steep slopes, in an environmentally sensitive area, surrounded by single-family homes with no access to sidewalks, sewers or public transportation on River Road - it is difficult to come up with a rational justification for the selection of this site other than political expediency. Furthermore, and perhaps more fundamentally, we should all agree that it isn’t a wise or prudent use of the Township’s resources right now to be ploughing “full steam ahead” into making commitments with respect to affordable housing at a time when no one has any idea what our municipal or state budgets (or even what the world) will look like 6 months from now given the Covid challenge that we collectively face.
State and local governments are facing unprecedented strain as tax revenues diminish and spending increases exponentially in response to the Covid crisis. I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched the meeting on Thursday (through intermittent interruptions in my Zoom connection) whether instead of authorizing bond issuances to purchase group homes for affordable housing over resident’s objections, it would be more prudent for our elected leaders to “shore up” township finances and borrowing capacity for use in continuing to combat the fall-out of the Covid crisis. Our Township finances will surely face increased strain as we continue to fight this pandemic, but it is hard to determine how our affordable housing obligations might evolve based on the fall-out from this crisis.
For all of the above reasons, I implore each of Mayor Kelly, Committeewoman Ness, Committeewoman Ewald, Committeewoman Swartz and Committeewoman Fondaco to embrace a common sense, transparent and equitable process moving forward with respect to affordable housing matters and to postpone all such matters until the Covid crisis has passed so that residents are afforded a meaningful opportunity to participate in the process and our financial resources can be rightfully allocated to Covid responses in the interim; or, if they are unwilling to do so, to step down from their positions and provide an opportunity to those who are willing to do the right thing for residents on these matters. If they do not, I fear that we will all experience another “Groundhog Day” quite soon with long-term consequences that, unfortunately, will be all too real to residents.