To the editor:
Across New Jersey the Fair Share Housing Center – a group of lawyers who make their money building and renting affordable housing – is threatening and suing towns in a blatant attempt to control local zoning. While all towns must fulfill an obligation to provide affordable housing, FSHC has now become the arbiter of “how much” and is “negotiating” with a group of over 200 towns that are cowering and cutting terrible deals to avoid fighting it out in court. Clinton Township is a perfect example of a cowering town.
After conducting months of secret meetings with developers, Mayor John Higgins and the Clinton Township Council went behind closed doors with the Planning Board "in executive session" to decide who would get to build 805 new housing units in our town -- under the guise of providing "required affordable housing."
Fewer than half the 805 units in the deal are affordable.
Prior to signing the deal with FSHC, nothing was disclosed to the public. There were no presentations at Council meetings or the Planning Board. There was no Q&A with the public. There was no opportunity for public comment or input.
Higgins and his star-chamber team chose some developers and rejected others – no one knows who. The big winner, who had approvals for only 21 units in the township’s Annandale district, was gifted with over 400 units on the same site in a high-density deal that dwarfs The Mews. The Mews is a development of 221 units constructed under another affordable housing settlement over a decade ago. The Mews has only 35 affordable units. Interestingly, the new 400 will be right next to The Mews.
Another developer got the back-room nod for 138 new units -- only 28 of which are affordable. That one will feature 10 units per acre after Higgins agreed to rezone the property.
Then the mayor and council signed a complex, 19-page "settlement agreement" with the Fair Share Housing Center without seeking public input or disclosing a word about its terms in advance.
The contingencies FSHC got Higgins to agree to are nothing short of astonishing. For example, if all the units are not built on time, "if needed" Clinton Township has agreed sue its neighbors -- Readington, Lebanon, Town of Clinton and the RLSA -- to obtain water and sewer for the 805 units, even though there is not enough to be had in any local sewer or water system.
Higgins and the township attorney who added that clause claim there's no "obligation" to sue. Then why is it in the deal? "If needed" is FSHC's door to commandeer township zoning.
Another contingency repeated again and again requires Clinton Township to expend any "municipal funds" necessary to ensure the 805 units are built on time to the FSHC's satisfaction.
FSHC's predecessor in the sue-NJ-towns-for-money game was the late Henry Hill, who famously said, "Suing these scared towns is about as sporting as clubbing baby harp seals."
After Mayor Higgins "negotiated" an agreement to build "only" 373 affordable units, along with a bonus of hundreds more high-density market units for private developers, FSHC landed the coup de grace -- Higgins agreed to give FSHC a "donation" of $30,000 of taxpayers' money.
The mayor and council have set it up so any member of the public who has comments or objections can finally make them - in state Superior Court on Feb. 12. They’ll have to drive to Somerset County. Details including the numbers are on www.exmayor.com.
Nick Corcodilos, former mayor