MONTVILLE, NJ – A lawsuit filed by the Fair Housing Council may force the town to almost double in size in order to bring in more affordable housing, Mayor Jim Sandham told the Montville Township Chamber of Commerce during his “State of Montville Township” talk in November.

The suit, being fought by several towns including Montville, follows the disbanding of the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), and Sandham called it a “tremendous issue that could change the face of the town.”

“Every elected official acknowledges that you need affordable housing,” he told members at the chamber’s luncheon meeting. “It’s important from a community, moral perspective and it’s the right thing to do.

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“There was a Council on Affordable Housing that was deemed ineffective by the courts. The administration didn’t do anything about changing it and the courts basically disbanded it. Now they’re leaving it up to lower courts to decide affordable housing requirements. COAH had three different ‘rounds’; we’ve been through round one and two, and Montville was ahead of our requirement. We were on target for round three when it was disbanded.”

Sandham said the NJ Fair Housing Council is suing Montville, and has determined in their “vacant land report” how many units should be built.

“To me that report is very flawed,” he said. “As an example, they counted ‘vacant land’ as the median between the north and south lanes of 287. That doesn’t qualify in my mind as reasonable.”

He said towns have banded together and obtained more reasonable reports. Meanwhile, the Fair Housing Council has said Montville needs 1,300 more affordable units, he said.

“We have about 450 now,” he said. “So they say we need about three times as much. Even if you built them, I’m not even sure you could fill them.”

Sandham said the town can require new developments to set aside as much as 20 percent of their units to be affordable housing

“You would have to build 6,500 units in Montville to get that 1,300. We only have about 8,000 units in town right now. That includes single- and multi-family homes and apartments. [Fair Housing Council] is basically saying, ‘You have to double the size of the town in order to accommodate affordable housing.’ We have four ‘interveners’ now – four people with property they want to develop – who have joined the suit. The reason they do this is, it doesn’t go before a land use judge, it goes before a civil judge, whose responsibility is not to say, ‘well this property doesn’t fit-in in this area,’ as a land use judge would,” Sandham explained.

Sandham said that a developer was denied 349 rental units when they applied to a Montville land-use board, but now that they’ve joined in on this lawsuit, they’re asking for more than 500 units, because “they know they have a better chance with the judge.”

“That’s what we’re fighting right now," he said. “The four interveners are requesting more than 1,000 units. Businesses in town may want to see some of that, because it means more traffic into your business. But we want it to be planned, in the right places, and make sense for our community.”

Budget

Sandham said Montville has had a two percent cap on its budget for ten years, three years before Trenton enacted legislature on it.

“[Committee Member] Deb Nielson and I ran [our campaign] on that 12 years ago because the increases before that were significant,” Sandham said. “We got a handle on it by cutting our debt and cutting capital improvements.”

Sandham said the new police station, youth center and town hall were built with little time in between each.

“[After we were elected,] we curtailed capital spending from $5 million to $500,000 the first two years, and then the second two years to a million,” he said. “The benefit of that is we’ve cut our debt from $75 million to $35 million in 11 years, resulting in a AAA bond rating – we’re one of only about 100 towns in America to have that. But if you don’t do anything with that, you’re missing the boat. We refinanced our debt, and we cut off a point to a point and a half. We’ve saved the taxpayers about $2 million as a result.”

Interest Arbitration

“Police salaries make up fifty percent of salaries, and salaries are fifty percent of total expenses in the township budget, so a quarter of our total budget is police salaries,” Sandham said. “The police have been getting two percent salary increases, which is reasonable. If they negotiate more than that, you can imagine what we’ll have to do in other areas to [achieve] the two percent tax cap. The new governor has not committed as to whether he will keep interest arbitration in place or not. That’s a big issue that could impact us.”

Ratables

Sandham said that tax ratables help the budget but development has slowed down. There’s a balance to be achieved between development and preserving neighborhoods, he said.

Sandham has made it no secret that he is pleased that 20 townhouses will be built near the Towaco train station, rather than rental apartments above commercial use buildings.

“I would call that area rundown [before], and we had a vision to get a couple of ‘anchor’ properties on either end, and we did with Rails and what is now Village Market,” he said. “Now we have a ‘mini downtown’ and you can go there, walk around, meet your neighbors and do some shopping. That was the vision and it’s coming to fruition.”

Pilgrim Pipeline

Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings, LLC wants to put an oil pipeline from Albany to Linden for Bakken crude oil transportation, Sandham said, “but they want to put it right over our aquifer.”

“We pump out 3 million gallons a day and 90 percent of our water comes from the aquifer,” he said. “We need to protect that. A leak could be hazardous and damage our drinking water – even the installation of the pipeline itself could damage the aquifer.”

Sandham said that Montville has banded together with 14 other towns in order to oppose the pipeline.

“But the pipeline company is very smart,” he said. “Since a lot of that oil is transported by train, they’ve gotten the towns along the train route to voice their support for the pipeline, so that the trains won’t go through their towns anymore. They have a ‘divide and conquer’ mentality.”

Sandham told the group that the company had preliminary approval for 107 miles of the project in New York state.

TAPinto Montville spoke with George Bochis, VP of Development for Pilgrim Pipeline, who said that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Thruway Authority, who are the co-lead agencies for the pipeline in New York, have given preliminary approval to the first draft of the environmental impact study of the total of 107 miles that will traverse New York state.

The company has to go in front of the NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection for approval, Sandham said, but the DEP doesn’t have to have a public hearing. He said the towns lobbied to have one and the DEP agreed verbally.

“I attend a convention of elected officials every year and I will talk to various people but they may not be there after Jan. 1,” Sandham said.

Goodbye

“I’ll be stepping down on Dec. 31 after 12 years on the township committee,” Sandham said. “It’ll be bittersweet. I really enjoyed helping the community and the people. I encourage you to get involved on our committees and boards.”