NEW PROVIDENCE, NJ – The Borough Council held a special meeting regarding the affordable housing settlement on Monday, March 18, and New Providence residents took the opportunity to ask questions, vent their frustration and express their concerns regarding the impact of the upcoming zoning changes. In additions to the council members, Borough Attorney Steven Kunzman and Planner McKinley Mertz attended the meeting and answered residents’ questions.
Mayor Al Morgan noted that the affordable housing discussion can be “confusing”. He noted that many New Jersey municipalities are dealing with the same concerns regarding the court mandate which requires towns to provide realistic opportunities for affordable housing developments. New Providence has recently reached a settlement agreement that potentially adds 1209 residential units of which 316 have to be assigned to low and moderate income households. The majority of the units will be market priced.
The majority of the approximately 20 residents who took the microphone were mostly worried about the overcrowding of schools if a large number of families with school age children move into the town. They were concerned that the school district is not prepared to handle a large population growth ahead of time as the schools are currently at capacity. They feared that the quality of education will suffer as class sizes are increased.
Council President Michael Gennaro noted that the Board of Education (BOE) has already hired a demographer who will be able to estimate the population growth. It will take at least 2-3 years before any of the potential developments will be move-in ready. If it appears that the school age population will grow, the BOE will have enough time to decide how to accommodate more students. The BOE may need another bond referendum in the future. He noted that New Providence residents understand that their property values have grown due to the excellent school district. He said that he trusts that residents will want to keep the schools as good as they are and vote in favor of any future referendum.
Morgan pointed out that the borough has agreed to the settlement that could potentially bring 1209 new housing units into the town. However, such a large number of units “may never even come to fruition.” At the moment no one knows have many units will be built, he said. Kunzman explained that currently the Linde property is in negotiations with Erickson Living regarding a potential expansion of the age-restricted Lantern Hill development. The Becton Dickinson property is also likely to be developed, with a maximum of 192 dwelling units of which 38 will be affordable. Gennaro noted that the timeline for other potential developments is uncertain as many of the soon-to-be-rezoned properties are currently leased.
Some residents said they would have preferred the borough to fight against the requirements for as long as possible. Others advised the borough to procure apartment units in the existing buildings and convert them into low and moderate income housing units. Gennaro explained that those municipalities that fought the requirements ended up losing their cases and wasting millions of dollars in legal expenses. New Providence has already spent approximately $500,000 for legal expenses related to the affordable housing mandate. He also pointed out that had the borough not agreed to the settlement, it would have lost its immunity to so called builders remedy lawsuits. In that case high density housing could be constructed in any neighborhood. The settlement agreement allows the borough to contain high density developments in certain areas, close to downtown and public transportation. Furthermore, Gennaro explained that obtaining existing units to fill the affordable quota is deemed cost-prohibitive.
Residents also asked if the builders of the new developments can be required to provide funds for school expansions and additional emergency services. Gennaro explained that the builders will go through the regular process of having their construction plans approved by the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Adjustments. The borough will do all it can to ensure that any outcome will be the best possible for the community, he said. He also noted that the new developments will be assessed by the Tax Assessor and the additional property taxes will be added into the borough’s budget.
Other concerns expressed by the residents included increased traffic, not only due to the New Providence developments but also due to those of the neighboring towns, limited downtown parking capacity and the status of infrastructure upgrade plans.
Furthermore, residents were asking how to make their voices heard. Gennaro noted that the settlement agreement cannot be changed. It is a “done deal,” he said. However, residents are encouraged to contact their state representatives in order to prevent any further housing requirements. He explained that the current requirements expire in 2025. The courts are actively monitoring that these mandates are met and the municipalities must submit annual reports regarding the progress of their affordable housing plan.
The borough has provided Affordable Housing Q & A Part 1 and Part 2 information packages that are available at the borough website. Councilwoman Nadine Geoffroy said that the information packages will also be made available at the Borough Hall and the senior citizen center as well as at the library. She reminded then attendees that Assemblyman Jon Bramnick will be at the library on Sunday, March 31 at from 3 to 4 PM to discuss affordable housing issues.