Clark Planning Board Adopts Affordable Housing Settlement Resolution

Township Planner Kevin O'Brien Credits: Susan R. Bonnell
Clark resident Natalie Belverio Credits: Susan R. Bonnell
Clark resident Bill Caruso Credits: Susan R. Bonnell
Clark resident Howard Donavon Credits: Susan R. Bonnell
Credits: Susan R. Bonnell
Credits: Susan R. Bonnell

CLARK, NJ – The Clark Planning Board held a public meeting at the Arthur L. Johnson High School auditorium Thursday night to explain Clark’s affordable housing obligations and answer the public’s questions.  At the end of the meeting, the board unanimously approved the new affordable housing resolution as part of the township’s master plan.

Last week, Mayor Sal Bonaccorso and Business Administrator John Laezza held a special televised presentation on TV-36 to review Clark’s position as well as dispel any rumors surrounding the topic. 

At Thursday’s meeting, municipal planner Kevin O’Brien expanded upon this presentation, providing background on the court-ordered affordable housing obligations municipalities throughout the state are facing. 

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O’Brien explained that the township had met with and negotiated with the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) in 1991 and therefore was granted immunity from any builders’ lawsuits.  The town continued to negotiate and meet with COAH through 2009.

Because COAH did not meet or take any action from 2009 through 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that COAH was no longer suitable to support affordable housing efforts and directed the superior courts to take control, O'Brien said.

“Because of that decision by the supreme court in 2015, all of the towns in New Jersy must report to their superior court to have their master plans and fair share elements and various supporting documents reviewed by and accepting by superior courts,” he said.

Clark has been working with the superior court since July 2015 to “develop affordable housing report and present a plan that would be acceptable to them, as well as one that would work with the municipality,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien referred to Bonaccorso’s presentation last week to explain how the New Jersey Builders Association is tied in with the Fair Share Center.   Both have brought lawsuits against towns throughout NJ asking that the number of affordable care housing be increased.

While Clark was originally asked to make 388 units available, they have negotiated this number down to 263 units.  This number includes the original 93 units that had been accepted by COAH, O’Brien explained.

“We have shown through our fair share plan… where 328 units can be placed in the township,” O’Brien said.  “The idea is to provide more than what is necessary to show the court that we are being flexible and cooperative as well as to show them that there is a realistic development potential.”

O’Brien said that this show of willingness will provide Clark with immunity for a set period of time (this plan would run through 2025).  Without immunity, O’Brien explained that builders can sue the town through a "builder’s remedy" lawsuit. 

“This means that the town would have no control of the location, over the looks, or the type of development that a builder could put in,” O'Brien explained.

“By not fighting a losing battle we are not wasting township funds," he said. "By choosing places and specifying what can be built where, the township gets to control where a development goes, what impacts it will have, and what it will look like. By passing the housing element of the fair share plan this evening, the planning board will ensure local control over affordable housing development and guide that development to appropriate locations to meet our requirement under law and under court.”

The following properties are included in the affordable housing settlement:

  • Westfield Avenue and Terminal Avenue
  • Raritan Road – vacant gas station near Madison Hill Road is eligible for development, zoned for 12 units
  • Raritan Road – near the intersection of Westfield Ave; across from Manny’s Diner
  • Jack’s Tavern – Westfield Avenue and Brant Ave.
  • Walnut Street and Valley Road (Evening Realty)
  • A & P Site on Westfield Avenue
  • Westfield Avenue “Downtown Village”
  • Schieferstein farm

Although the temple on Valley Road had been part of the initial plan, Bonaccorso said it was subsequently exempted as a house of worship. 

O’Brien also explained that these properties are now privately-owned.

“By zoning for affordable housing, we are not taking this away," he said. "We are not ordering that something be built there.  All we are doing is providing an opportunity for affordable housing to be built.”

O’Brien explained that they don’t anticipate that all of these properties will be developed right away, but they may instead happen over many years.

“Clark is a very proud community of hard working folks," he said. "This township has cooperated with the affordable housing efforts in the past not because this township agrees with that philosophy, not because the township agrees with the supreme court, but because in our opinion we have no choice.”

Clark resident Natalie Belverio asked the planning board  if the township can enforce the amount of people living in each unit once they are built.  Bonaccorso said the town did institute a square footage ordinance in response to overcrowding in the apartments already in existence.  He said that this ordinance is enforced by fire officials.

Belverio also asked how the Clark public school district will be affected by the possible influx of people. 

“What is going to happen with our schools?" she asked. "Are we going to need a new school?  And who does that burden fall upon?  Is it our residential tax payers?  Are builders going to be given tax incentives to build these apartments and maybe not pay their fair share of taxes?”

“You are right about your concern for overcrowding," Bonaccorso said. "We feel exactly the way you do. When this plan gets accepted it doesn’t mean it’s going to all be built tonight.  This can be built over 3, 5, 10, 20 years or maybe not at all.  So, we hope that … it phases in and doesn’t show that impact.”

“As long as I’m the mayor, there are not tax abatements to builders because I’m not going to be doing them a favor,” Bonaccorso added.

Resident Bill Caruso, who outlined his experience with senior housing development and as a real estate consultant, said he understand the obligations the town is facing.  Referring to a flyer that was anonymously sent around town, Caruso said “the people who put that out have no concept of what’s happening in the State of New Jersey and the federal government as far as affordable housing.”

“Believe me folks, because I’ve gone through this for many years, you are being protected,” Caruso said.

Clark resident Howard Donavon asked the board if renderings are available for the Valley Road and Walnut Avenue property targeted for development.  Bonaccorso reminded the public that plans have not been approved for this location. 

“They [the builders] were an intervener in this lawsuit so they literally had a seat at every negotiation,” Bonaccorso said.  He explained that once the ordinance is passed, the final plan will still not be enacted until accepted by the court on June 29.  

He told Donavon that once the builder submits plans for this site, residents in the area will be notified and can attend the planning board meeting to be sure their concerns are heard.

While Bonaccorso has been outspoken about his disagreement with the court-ordered obligations, he did ask residents to try and look at some positive outcomes that may come from this. 

“If you have a young man or lady who graduates high school … and has a job making $32,000 a year, they are eligible also to be in this,” Bonaccorso said.  “Some of the senior citizens who are on a long waiting list for Woodcrest are definitely eligible to get into some of these apartments.”    

The Mayor and the board thanked the public for coming out to express their concerns. Nearly 100 residents attended the meeting and eight residents addressed the board. 

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