CHATHAM, NJ - The conundrum for the Chatham Township Committee is that no matter what it says these days, it's going to be in trouble.
A certain lack of transparency got the Chatham Township Committee in trouble with the public in the first place when it voted on Nov. 14, 2019, to hand over the municipal building for the construction of 65 affordable housing units without telling the public before the night of the vote. Now the attempt to make things right by being more transparent has gotten the governing body in trouble with the courts.
The Chatham Township Committee tried to talk its way out of the corner it painted itself into in regard to its third round obligation of affordable housing on Thursday night, knowing that its legal opposition - the Fair Share Housing Center - would use every word uttered in public against them in a court of law.
Stacey Ewald, in her first month as a committee member, said she had empathy for the frustration of residents because she used to ask the same pointed questions about affordable housing when she was a member of the public. But she noted that meeting coverage by outlets such as TAPinto Chatham were being referenced in counter motions by the Fair Share Housing Center (see video below).
Chatham Township attorney Albert Cruz filed a formal motion to ask the Superior Court Judge Michael C. Gaus to delay the township's compliance hearing for 120 days to allow the township committee to explore alternative sites. In December of 2018, the township had agreed to meet its obligations by building affordable housing on municipal property. Minus the 24 units approved to be built at Arbor Green (Skate Park), the township needed to name a site or sites for the remaining 74 units.
In a brief and counter-motion filed by the Fair Share Housing Center on Jan. 24, 2020, it asked the judge to remove the township's builders' remedy immunity from lawsuits. Cruz has until Feb. 7, 2020, to answer the counter-motion. The Special Master will make recommendations to the judge on Feb. 12 and there will be a hearing on the motions and counter motions on Feb. 14.
The litigation has become complicated by the public's outcry for information and answers. The majority of residents appear to be in favor of spreading affordable housing more evenly throughout the township rather than putting 65 units at the municipal building. See remarks by resident William Kolb below.
Robert Hoffmann, Chatham Township administrator, tried to explain the situation the committee is dealing with in regard to outside forces in the video below.
The Chatham Township Committee did take steps toward meeting its obligation by passing three resolutions related to its affordable housing obligations. The first was the adoption of a spending plan to collect funds that will pay for affordable housing costs. The committee also passed a "Dedication by Rider" and "Intent to Bond", all necessary steps in setting up finances for affordable housing.
The mayor and committee did reveal the latest cost appraisals and estimates for related renovations to the municipal building and police department, which needs to be upgraded in order to meet state NJ Department of Corrections standards. Hoffmann said the deadline for compliance is October 2021, but he has asked for an extension of that deadline.
The cost of renovating the police department at its current site on Southern Boulevard would be $2.5 million and the cost of renovating the municipal building at 58 Meyersville Rd. would be $4.7 million. Construction work to incorporate the police department into the municipal building would cost about the same, $7.2 million.
The public came to Thursday's meeting anxious to hear more about alternative sites, but Chatham Township Mayor Michael Kelly, wary of being transparent and confidential for legal purposes, guarded his comments (see below).
Some residents were concerned with the ability to find a developer willing to build a smaller number of units on separate sites, but Chatham Township Engineer John Ruschke said that developers will be more than willing for the right price. Committee member Karen Swartz agreed (see video below).
In the related lawsuit brought against Chatham Township by residents Christopher and Ashley Felice, Cruz said that the deadline for his answer was postponed to March 6.