Government

South Plainfield Affordable Housing Settlement Plan Sparks Lengthy and Heated Discussion

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SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The South Plainfield Borough Council, at a meeting Feb. 6, voted 4-1 in support of the mayor signing an agreement to ‘execute a settlement agreement and all necessary documentation to obtain a judgment of compliance’ in regard to its Affordable Housing Compliance Plan. Under the agreement, which the borough is under legal obligation from the Superior Court to implement meet, South Plainfield will see the construction of a little over 400 housing units at the former Motorola property on Durham Avenue.

While South Plainfield had been aggressively working to bring other commercial tenants to the Motorola site, property owner M&M Realty objected and intervened with the court ruling the 27-acre Durham Avenue site be included in the borough’s affordable housing obligations. Special Court Master Elizabeth McKenzie was appointed by the court to handle the negotiations between the borough and the development and, under the proposed settlement, the number of proposed units was scaled down from 750 units to 410 units – of which 20 percent or 80 units will be designated as affordable housing.

Despite the council passing the resolution 5-0 at the Jan. 23 meeting, however, the agreement became a hot button topic at Monday night’s meeting when Democratic Party Council members Jon Dean and Gary Vesce questioned why it needed to be passed then and there. Republican council members and Mayor Matt Anesh, however, countered that both Dean and Vesce had in fact already approved the agreement and were now quibbling over allowing the mayor to execute a contract they themselves had helped unanimously pass at that time.

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While Dean suggested that the resolution be tabled in an effort to provide residents with more information, Anesh argued that the councilman already approved the agreement and that the public was informed immediately afterward that a settlement would be its only option.

Not allowing the signing of the settlement, said the mayor, would put the borough at risk. “We’ve gotten to the point where we have an agreement that holds some protection from the court…at the end of the day, we are going to have to face the residents when they ask why, when we could have had 400 units and now have 700,” said Anesh. “If you table this, all you are doing is making this case worse for us… If we table this today, what do we do when we wake up tomorrow morning to ensure that the residents of South Plainfield don't see even more housing than what we are already facing today?”

In regard to communicating with the residents, Anesh said all members of the council signed a letter informing the public of the agreement; the letter was posted two days after the meeting on social media, the borough website, and in the town’s two newspapers.

South Plainfield resident Joe Lambert, a former council candidate, also took to the podium with a written list of concerns, questioning what studies, if any, had been conducted about the number of school-aged children expected to reside in the complex.

While McKenzie said the municipality could request a study, the outcome would not be any different and the construction of housing would still be required at the Motorola site. “A lot of work was done to try to make this as palpable as possible even though it wasn't the borough’s first choice but because it was something they are legally obligated to do,” McKenzie said.

Lambert also requested that the council hold off on approving the mayor’s signing of the agreement until after a series of town hall meetings could be held. “Can we offer more opportunity for more South Side residents to be involved?” he asked, stressing that all residents should be made aware of the borough’s plans, specifically because of the impact additional housing will have on borough schools, roads, and community resources such as police, fire and EMS.

“At the end of the day, the impact is going to be significant on the residents of South Plainfield. We are going to potentially have to expand or build new schools; we are going to need busing where we never had busing before; we are going to need infrastructure upgrades and it is going to cost millions. I don’t want to stall the process but I want to make sure borough residents have every opportunity to review all this information and get their questions out,” said Lambert.

According to Anesh, however, no amount of meetings will change the outcome. “I could from house-to-house-to-house in South Plainfield. I could go from school-to-school. We could hold town hall meetings from now until the end of March and listen to every comment a resident has to say. It is not going to change anything because we don't have any alternatives,” said Anesh. “The alternatives that we have are the alternatives we’ve already taken….”

McKenzie agreed with the mayor, stating that town hall meetings – either prior to the settlement or at this juncture – would not have made a difference. Additionally, she said, they could have an adverse affect on the court settlement.

“The judge has given an extended period of immunity to work things out with this particular developer, but if that were to fail, the judge would set this for trial…” she said, adding that if the borough were to appeal the settlement, it would cost a minimum of $250,000 in legal fees and result in South Plainfield losing the court’s protection and immunity.

Upon appeal, McKenzie said, the borough could be forced to build even more units at the proposed site and the Durham Avenue developer would also have the opportunity to include additional sites within the municipality into the housing plan. Additionally, an appeal would also open the plan others looking to come into town.

The chances of 1111 Durham Avenue being removed from the borough’s affordable housing obligation, said McKenzie, are ‘essentially zero.’

While he is not opposed to providing housing for low- and moderate-income families, Anesh noted the borough never planned to ‘allow 1111 Durham Avenue be a housing development.’ “We made every argument, and more…that I could possibly think of to avoid this. We’ve been painstakingly over this and there is nothing else we can do,” said the mayor, noting that the settlement plan is the borough’s only recourse to ‘stop the bleeding.

“I do not like the options we have…I’ve never fought so hard for something I don’t want to sign…I can stand up here and tell you this is the last thing that I want, but nothing is going to change…The appointed Court Master has told us that she will not budge and she will not give us any better deal than we have today,” said Anesh.

Council President Derryck White backed up the mayor. “Our hand is forced…Our job now is to minimize the impact,” he said.

Although Dean, in the end, voted to allow Anesh to sign the agreement, Vesce did not, rendering the lone ‘no’ vote; Republican Councilman Robert Bengivenga, Jr. recused himself from the vote as he did at the January meeting.

“After agreeing to the settlement and signing his approval with all members of the governing body, Councilman Vesce votes to not allow the mayor to sign the agreement. It doesn’t make sense given the potential exposure and possible additional housing units this decision would have opened the borough up to,” said White. “This isn’t just my view. This is what was said by the Court Master and our own attorneys.”

According to Anesh, the plan is to hold town hall meetings once the development moves forward. At that juncture, residents will be able to ask questions and express concerns with the borough able to provide a visual breakdown of what’s to come.

In the end, the real problem, said Anesh, lies in the ‘complete lack of action by the state legislature’ over the past few years. “We had a governor who, in 2009 was campaigning, and was at least intent on derailing COAH and fixing it. With a lack of any kind of legislative assistance, and that includes our legislatures here in South Plainfield and in this district, zero was done,” said the mayor.

“…The opportunity is still there for this legislature to do something to stop this rather than it going to the courts [but] has done nothing for the last seven or eight years. And how many of them were re-elected this past November? I am sure every one of them,” Anesh said.

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