WATCHUNG, NJ -The Watchung Borough Council voted on Thursday to settle its third round affordable housing obligation mandated by the state. The Borough’s immunity from builder's remedy lawsuits expires on June 30.
A 230-unit apartment complex has been proposed and includes 46 affordable housing units on 21 acres on Bonnie Burn Road across from the firehouse. Watchung's third round affordable housing obligation is 53 units plus an additional 18 units left over from the second round. The initial 396 third round affordable units were decreased after a revised vacant land survey showed the realistic development potential to be 53 units.
Watchung Mayor Stephen Pote cast the deciding vote after the council deadlocked at 3-3. Council President Robert Gibbs, George Sopko and Bill Nehls voted for the resolution, and Maria Alberto, Stephen Black and David Mobus voted against it. None of the council members were actually in favor of the resolution but instead voted in favor as a matter of risk management.
“I look at the immunity that’s about to run out and it really comes down to risk management,” said Pote. “What are the chances a builder will seek remedy against this town if we vote no tonight? I personally think the chances are very high.”
Many referenced the unfavorable ruling in Princeton and West Windsor. The final vote was 4-3 and, along with approval of four other related resolutions, allows the Planning Board to begin a redevelopment study of the Bonnie Burn Road site.
Depending on the results of the Planning Board’s study, BNE Real Estate, the contract purchaser of the site, could begin the process for site plan approval with both the Watchung Borough Planning Board and the Somerset County Planning Board.
Members of the public were given the opportunity to speak on the affordable housing issue prior to the vote. Some asked the council to table the vote until the June 30 deadline and continue to explore other options. Others suggested exploring options like contacting Levin Management, the owner of the Blue Star property, with the hope of adding units above the stores.
Still others suggested joining with neighboring towns to fight the affordable housing obligation, and a few suggested taking the issue to the Supreme Court.
Many who spoke also referenced State Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, (R-21) who, at a town hall meeting in Watchung Borough on Tuesday, he urged residents to contact Trenton with opposition to the affordable housing obligation imposed upon New Jersey municipalities.