SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – The township is suing retired Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Douglas Wolfson to throw out his affordable housing rulings last year that could bring almost 3,000 Council On Affordable Housing (COAH) units to the municipality.
According to the 67-page complaint filed on March 28, the township seeks Wolfson’s rulings and opinions vacated due to his connections to builders while deciding the cases.
In two separate rulings last year, Wolfson eviscerated the township, scolding it for not being “compliant” with the court’s attempts to define a satisfactory affordable housing plan, and then denying it immunity from builder’s lawsuits that could bring thousands more market units to South Brunswick.
According to his October 2016 decision, the units would be to cover a 16-year “gap period” of need in the community in addition to the “current” obligation of 1,533 units he ordered in August to be built during the next 10 years, for a total of 2,907 units.
“I am entirely satisfied that a significant affordable housing need arose during the gap period (1999-2015),” Wolfson wrote in that decision. “This need is a necessary component of South Brunswick’s fair share calculation.”
This decision came as the second part of a trial in which the township sought to be spared judicial intervention in its plans to implement affordable housing in the community.
The first part of the trial took place during the summer and Wolfson decided in August that the township, despite having a plan to address the issue, had not acted “in good faith.”
Wolfson said, at that time, that the township would lose any say in what parcels could be developed to meet the current 1,533-unit obligation, as determined by the court.
He said the testimony of the township’s expert, Dr. Peter Angelides of the Econsult consulting firm, to be “flawed” and not credible.
Wolfson, instead, went with the findings of one of the town’s opponents in the lawsuit, the Fair Share Housing Center.
"This decision demonstrates that towns can't use gimmicks to exclude tens of thousands of working families, seniors and people with disabilities from safe neighborhoods and access to good schools and employment," Fair Share Housing Center Executive Director Kevin Walsh said in a press release at the time announcing the decision. "These families have waited 16 years for New Jersey's housing laws to provide them the opportunities promised by our Constitution. It's time to reject these extreme arguments so that we can get to work building homes for New Jersey families."
The suit filed March 28 asking to have Wolfson’s rulings and opinions vacated and a new trial on the matter claims that he retired from the bench on December 31, 2016 only to reappear representing a major developer, Edgewood Properties Inc., of Piscataway, just four days later, on Jan. 4. 2017.
South Brunswick contends that Wolfson’s decisions in the case were prejudiced toward the developers because of his long history working with those firms prior to taking the bench in the affordable housing cases.
It is this appearance of bias that the town is basing its legal argument on to throw out his decisions and have a new trial on the matter.
When reached for comment by cell phone Monday, Wolfson hung up without saying a word.
The complaint points to Wolfson’s various associations with builders during his career as an attorney before being appointed to the bench in 1992.
He served until 2002 and then served a year as an assistant attorney general for the state before returning to the bench a second time from 2013-2016, primarily hearing COAH cases, according to his resume online.
He also authored several books on affordable housing and land use during his career, according to the resume.
South Brunswick claims that Wolfson was predisposed against its case and that his decisions now benefit the builders, one of which, he now represents.
The town also claims, in the court documents, that Wolfson and his family took luxury jet rides on the builder’s plane to various vacation outings during the years.
According to the suit, Wolfson should have recused himself from these cases due to the appearance of bias from his history with the builders.
State officials in the New Jersey Courts division said that they would not specifically comment on the new lawsuit against Wolfson, but that if charges are brought against a judge, it is something they may consider.
“We don’t have a comment on this, it is before the court,” Spokesman Winnie Comfort said Monday. “Every case is different. If we have a case where someone has filed charges against a judge, that case is handled in due course, the way it is supposed to be according to law.”
South Brunswick is not looking for a disciplinary action, but wants the earlier rulings vacated and a new trial on the matter assigned to a different court in the state, according to the complaint.
Such a decision could impact several municipalities in the state, according to the complaint, because many settled cases through Wolfson’s court.
If the township wins the current suit, it is not clear if that would impact those settlements.
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