SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Revealing a number that seems to please no one locally, Mayor Al Smith and the Scotch Plains Council announced on Tuesday that the Township has settled on a figure of 598 units for its state-mandated affordable housing obligation.
"Scotch Plains was among 300 municipalities that filed petitions. Not all of them are compliant for one reason or another," Mayor Smith explained. "The municipality has been involved since July 2015 in forming a housing ordinance and fair share plan, negotiating with developers, and dealing with special master (court-appointed planner) who oversees the development (of affordable housing)."
The housing units would be built at several different locations, including land that currently belongs to Bowcraft (200 units; 35 affordable) on Route 22, Parker Gardens (228 units; 34 affordable) on Terrill Road, Amberg Perennial Farm & Garden (125 units; 19 affordable) on Lamberts Mill Road, and parcels of land in the downtown redevelopment district, on North Avenue, and near Jerusalem Road.
Planner Michael Mistretta of Harbor Consultants, and Scotch Plains's affordable-housing attorney, Bob Renaud, walked the council and members of the audience through a detailed presentation that illustrated the locations and the number of units scheduled to be at each site. They explained that the 598 figure actually represents a 30 percent reduction in the number originally proposed as the township's obligation:854.
Mr. Renaud said that the "fair share" housing numbers come from formulas that take into account overall population, low-income population, the size of the town, and residents’ incomes and added that they "have no relation to reality.”
If the agreement, scheduled to be officially signed on Feb. 16, remains unchanged, more than 3,000 total new housing units will be developed in order for affordable-housing units to comprise 15 percent. To put that into perspective: Scotch Plains currently has 8,795 total housing units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
At the meeting, Mayor Smith said that the township’s zoning ordinances would have to be revised to allow for multi-family housing units to be built on streets on which they currently are not allowed. Meanwhile, the mayor said he would speaking with state legislators in Trenton about solutions that would yield “more logical, more realistic” affordable housing numbers.
In a phone interview with TAPintoSPF, Deputy Mayor Llewellyn Jones, who has been working on this issue for years, said: "The number of units we are settling on has been crammed down our throats through a totally asinine process contrived by the New Jersey State Supreme Court."
Jones says that the housing numbers were "created by a special interest group out of Cherry Hill that clearly has no understanding of our township."
"I'm confident that we did the best we could given the situation," Jones said. "I'm optimistic for redevelopment in our downtown that will be beneficial to property owners and residents at large, but at the same time disappointed with other zoning changes that will infringe on residential areas."
Jones and Mayor Smith believe that the alternative of going to trial would have cost millions of dollars and risked far worse outcomes.
"I believe there is a need of affordable housing," Mayor Smith said at the meeting. "But at the end of the day, we are committed to implementing this agreement as best we can but will continue to seek better numbers."
The mayor said that the courts and the Fair Share Housing Center, which champions the building of affordable units, can "come in and tell us to build," but they don't care about the need for new infrastructure and the impact on the school system, which he says is near capacity.
"We will work to comply with the terms of the settlement and push as aggressively as possible for specific outcomes to protect the value of existing Scotch Plains property owners," Jones said. "Hopefully market forces and terms of the settlement will dictate that much of the overdevelopment remains theoretical and not tangible."