EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - The Township of East Brunswick and its municipal Planning Board have been ordered by a state judge to reverse a 2019 decision denying the Hidden Oak Woods application, a project that that seeks to construct 275 residential apartments at the intersection of Harts Lane and Tices Lane.

The 76-page ruling by Superior Court Judge Thomas D. McCloskey handed down earlier this week also orders that Mayor Brad Cohen, who sits on the Planning Board as an “ex officio” member, can no longer participate in the planning board’s consideration of the Hidden Oak application.

In addition, Judge McCloskey ordered the appointment of an independent judicial officer, a ‘Mt. Laurel Implementation Monitor,’ to ensure that East Brunswick complies with its fair share housing responsibility.  Elizabeth McManus, who is the same person who oversaw the meetings regarding the development currently being constructed at the intersection of Old Stage Road and Summerhill Road, will review all zoning permits, building permits, and any other authorization to use or develop land or structures to assure compliance with the Mt. Laurel decision to provide affordable housing throughout New Jersey.  According to the Judge’s decision, the Monitor will have “unfettered access” to necessary documents and information regarding East Brunswick’s compliance with the law.

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Last year, the Planning Board declined the Hidden Oaks developer’s plan to construct the residential units on the grounds that the location, which includes a Green Acres space on Tices Lane, was part of the Lawrence Brook Watershed.  The Planning Board also cited some missing paperwork from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection when it turned down Hidden Oak’s application, which had been in process since 2003 and was presented to the Planning Board in 2016.  The large development of housing units was to have fulfilled a sizable portion of East Brunswick’s affordable housing responsibility. This land was put into the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) settlement agreement in 2016 by members of the Town Council who are no longer sitting members, with the exception of Councilman James Wendell who voted against Hidden Oaks Woods.

In the document, the Hidden Oak developers drew a connection between their process and that of Summerhill LLC, which faced some similar conflicts.  Both developments were high-volume.  Both were at the intersections of highly-travelled roads that already face traffic problems. Both might impact the number of students sent to small neighborhood elementary schools like Frost and Lawrence Brook.  Additionally, they were both met with resistance by Mayor Cohen and the Planning Board.

In the case of the Summerhill development, the oversight by the Mt. Laurel Implementation Monitor made all the difference in getting the project approved.  Mayor Cohen was barred from the Planning Board meetings and the Monitor assured compliance with the directives of the COAH. Some concessions were made by the developers, and the work was allowed to begin.  Hidden Oak sought, and has received, the same treatment with regard to the Tices Lane construction.

The judgment against East Brunswick will remain in place until July 1, 2025.