SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – The South Plainfield Borough Council, at a Jan. 23 meeting and under legal obligation from the Superior Court, unanimously authorized the approval of a proposed settlement agreement that will include the former Motorola property at 1111 Durham Avenue into its affordable housing plan. The settlement agreement is scheduled to be approved at the Feb. 6 council meeting.
The 5-0 council vote – Councilman Robert Bengivenga, Jr. recused himself – was rendered just days after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that municipalities throughout the state must meet constitutional obligations and provide a fair share of low and moderate income housing options.
“No one is saying we do not believe there should be affordable housing throughout the state and throughout South Plainfield. It is the manner in which we, as a municipality, are being forced to do things,” said Mayor Matt Anesh during the meeting.
Earlier this month, the state Superior Court unanimously ruled that municipalities must meet affordable housing needs left unaddressed between 1999 and 2015, stating that during this 16-year period, the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) failed to meet housing quotas for towns. Under the ruling, a total of 200,000 units are needed statewide, through rehab, conversion or new construction, by 2025.
“We hold that towns are constitutionally obligated to provide a realistic opportunity for their fair share of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households formed during the gap period and presently existing in New Jersey,” stated Justice Jaynee LaVecchia in the court’s unanimous 32-page decision.
Housing advocates such as the Fair Share Housing Center, feel the court ruling is ‘a victory for lower-income and minority families across New Jersey.’ “This ruling means that thousands of lower-income and minority families will be given the opportunity to live in safe neighborhoods, send their children to good schools, and work at jobs where they live instead of traveling hours commuting each day …” stated Colandus “Kelly” Francis, chairman of the Fair Share Housing Center’s Board of Directors and vice president of the Camden County Branch of the NAACP.
According to Anesh, the borough’s problem is not with having to provide affordable housing, but rather the way in which the town is being forced to do so.
“This isn’t something the town is taking lightly. I fundamentally disagree - not with providing affordable housing in South Plainfield but with the method the courts or the Council on Affordable Housing is mandating how we do it,” said Anesh.
The mayor stated that South Plainfield previously opposed residential development of the Durham Avenue property and, after multiple commercial parties expressed interest in the site, the borough did not include the property in its affordable housing plan, seeking a ‘Vacant Land Adjustment’ in meeting the affordable housing requirements.
Anesh said that South Plainfield was aggressively working to bring other commercial tenants to the site, but Motorola owner M&M Realty objected to the municipality’s plan. With the objection, M&M Realty was able to intervene in the affordable housing plan the borough was submitting to the court.
Special Court Master Betsy McKenzie, appointed to oversee the litigation, spoke at the Jan. 23 meeting. McKenzie stated that although the borough had been fully compliant in terms of meeting its previous affordable housing obligations, Durham Avenue must be included.
“The borough is legally obligated to include that site in the plan once it was know that it was available…” said McKenzie. “When you have a developer proposing inclusionary development and you are seeking a ‘Vacant Land Adjustment’ – and you had no choice but to do so in South Plainfield – you have no choice but to deal with that developer…”
As it currently stands, a combination of condos and townhouses totaling a combined 410 units, with 20 percent designated as affordable housing, can be built on 27-acres at 1111 Durham Avenue; the approved amount is a negotiated decrease. The developer was proposing nearly 750 units for the site.
“We’ve spent a great deal of time negotiating with the two developers to try to maximize the percentage of affordable housing, which ultimately reduces the development on those properties as necessary to meet the town’s obligations,” said Steven Kunzman, the attorney handling the borough’s affordable housing plan.
According to McKenzie, had the borough taken the issue to court rather than agree to the settlement option, it would have, ‘ultimately ended up in a lawsuit trying to stand its ground.’ “The only way that a town can avoid having an interveners site in the plan is if they can meet the full obligation in some other way… you don't have that luxury because you are a town that is largely developed,” she said.
In addition to the former Motorola property, the development of the Harris Steel site at New Brunswick Avenue and Tyler Place is also included in the plan. That site was approved to be in the plan back in 2009.
According to the borough’s planner Stan Slachetka, South Plainfield has implemented and followed through many of its affordable housing plan obligations over the years. “Fundamentally, the plan you have in place is the plan that you have been implementing for a better part of a decade and, in some case, for over a decade,” said Slachetka.
Among them include rehabilitation of existing dwellings occupied by low- or moderate-income households that were below code and in need of modernization. Additionally, the borough has also fully satisfied its ‘prior round’ obligations through the establishment of completed projects such as Highland Manors, several group homes that address special needs obligations, and at other locations, including existing senior citizen housing and rental units. However, said Slachetka, the borough’s plan must now work to address an obligation to ‘prospective need.’
“That is the obligation now and which will continue through 2025 and that prospective need is being addressed in part through a couple of projects already in your plan,” he said, referencing the Celebrations construction, the Harris Steel property site - which has been in the plan for several years – and now, the Durham Avenue site.
Although municipalities such as South Plainfield can appeal the Superior Court ruling, doing so would be a lengthy and costly legal battle that, in the end, could result in more housing units being mandated.
Frustrated, Anesh blasted the process and the court’s decision.
“There is nothing we can do to prevent housing on 1111 Durham or prevent housing at the Harris Steel site. We can put up a big show, take it to court, spend $250,000 of our money that ultimately could go to improving our roads, our parks, or to public safety… and fight a case we know we will not win,” said Anesh, noting that in the end, the borough could ‘end up with more units, the same, or a little less’ but nothing that would prevent housing on Durham altogether.
“It is legally obligated to be included in the plan,” Anesh said. “We have a decision to make, like it or not, and that decision has to be the one that is best for the borough. The choice of this governing body isn’t a choice anyone wants to make [but] … there is no decision other than to settle.”
Council President Derryck White, chair of the borough’s Economic Development Committee, added, “To minimize impact on the borough – whether it be legally or in terms of infrastructure – this is the decision we are faced with. It is not a decision we want or one we are taking lightly. We, as a governing body, tried as best we could to minimize the impact on the community because we didn't want to put ourselves in a position where, moving forward, we would have more dire consequences.”
Realizing residents will have questions and concerns, Anesh said the intent of the borough is to ‘share information and facts as they become available; and to make the borough’s ‘professional experts available’ at upcoming council meetings and other venues. An electronic version of the affordable housing plan, once officially adopted, will be posted on the borough’s website.
“We intend to fully make what is going to happen in the new plan transparent as can be,” said Anesh. “I also encourage our professionals and our governing body to make themselves available and hold a town hall where the details can be provided and residents can ask the questions that they want.”
The South Plainfield Borough Council is expected to approve the affordable housing plan at the Feb. 6 meeting.
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