Summit Council Approves $532,000 Fair Housing Trust Fund Payment for Habitat for Humanity Project on Morris Avenue

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Rabbi Avi Friedman speaks in support of the Habitat for Humanity project at Tuesday's Common Council meeting.
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SUMMIT, NJ - By a 5-2 vote on Tuesday night, the Summit Common Council approved a $532,000 expenditure of the Summit Fair Housing Trust Fund towards the cost of building a two-story, six-family condominium for low-and-moderate-income families on the site of a single-family home at 39 Morris Avenue.

Last month, the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment voted to approve the variances sought by Morris Habitat for Humanity to construct the structure, which is expected to contain a total of 14 bedrooms, of which eight would be occupied by parents and six by children.

According to Summit Housing Authority Chairman Richard Poole, the Morris Avenue site has been under consideration since 2007, and 39 properties were evaluated before the current site was selected.

Poole said the project was undertaken with the understanding the property had to be offered for sale, the project was environmentally feasible, the cost of each unit will not exceed $100,000, and there would be at least a two-year wait until the closing due to the need for approvals by the Zoning Board.

He added there were very few properties available in the city that fit the needs of the group.

The Habitat group has raised cash and pledges and in-kind donations which, combined with a line-of-credit from the trust fund, will be sufficient to pay the costs of building the structure, he noted, and more fundraising will be needed to pay off the line-of-credit.

Families who will reside in the condominiums, Poole said, will come from a "circle which goes from Union Township to Morristown," based on the 100 people who attended the orientation sessions sponsored by Habitat.

If the governing body rejected the proposal, according to the authority chairman, the city risked losing the $532,000 and would put itself at risk for future "builders remedy" suits from developers.

However, resident Bob Sheehan, who said he supports Habitat and has worked on its projects, added this project although "good for the community and good for the state was not good for this site."

Sheehan called it poor planning to put 12 families on a three-acre site and he felt that the city "was cramming this project down the throats of the 300 people opposed to it," adding the Housing Authority did not make a reasonable effort to find another location for the project.

However, Denison D. Harrield, Jr., pastor of the city's Wallace Chapel, said those opposed to the project were using misleading information to stop a project when all the group was doing was "tearing down a house to build a home."

Harrield added, "the council is being asked not to release dollars from a builders' fund which will bring the most significant advance in affordable housing in Summit in the last 25 years."

Stating that in his 21 years in the city he has encouraged people from all economic levels to build homes in Summit, the pastor disputed contentions that the children who move into the condominiums would put more of a strain on Summit schools than children from wealthy families who move into the city.

By offering housing to those who already working in Summit he said that the development would give them more opportunity to live and shop in the city.

Funding for the project should be approved he said, not because of some government or Council on Affordable Housing mandate, but because it was the right thing to do for Summit. The decision also should not be dictated by fear or emotion, he added.

However, John DeSocio, founder of the Committee to Save 39 Morris Avenue, said the six-family structure was too dense for a one-to-two-family zone and the Habitat group should have spent the $530,000 to find a suitable one-to-two-family home to develop.

Not one person from Summit would benefit from the project, DeSocio said, and Summit was authorizing a payment for the property $50,000 above its fair market value.

DeSocio estimated the extra cost to the city for the project at $300,000, based on the extra cost of educating the children who will live there plus the added costs of snow removal and garbage collection.

Rabbi Avi Friedman, however, said when he was appointed to his position six years ago his family could not afford to move into Summit and did so with the help of a non-profit organization.

"I hope people are welcomed into Summit not so much for the amount of taxes their homes will bring in, but for the other contributions they can make to the city," he added.

Councilman Michael Vernotico, who voted against the proposal, said he was very disappointed with members of the clergy in the city who raised the issue of race when speaking about those who were opposed to it.

He said 16 units per acre was too dense, adding a proposed development on Franklin Place would only contain eight units per acre, and "if this proposal was for only three units about 90% of the opposition to this project would go away."

With the value of units at 39 Morris Avenue set at between $125,000 and $150,000 there was no way the rest of the city could get away without taking up the extra tax burden of those units, he noted.

"Summit long ago did more for affordable housing than any other comparable community," the councilman said, leading the Council on Affordable Housing to reduce the city's COAH III obligation to zero, he noted.

Council President Dave Bomgaars, who supported the measure, said, in fact, Summit still had an obligation that could range from 44 to 209 affordable housing units depending on a decision still to be made by a court-appointed master and the units at 39 Morris Avenue definitely were needed to meet that obligation.

The density issue, he said, had been settled when the Board of Adjustment approved the project, and the council itself had initially voted to approve it on September 9, 2009.

Councilman Richard Madden, who called himself a long-time advocate for the underprivileged, said he was opposed to the project because he feared having so many units whose only egress was via Morris Avenue would add to the high number of traffic accidents that already had taken place in the area.

He added he didn't think Habitat had done "its due diligence" when it gave up on a project it had studied at the former Bob's Autobody site.

Mayor Jordan Glatt said he was somewhat confused that the council, which had earlier in the evening voted against allowing appeals of Zoning Board decisions to the Common Council, was now considering voting against the Zoning Board decision upholding the Habitat for Humanity project.

He added concerns from some people about the residents of the project not coming from Summit "make me nervous. I was not born in Summit. How do we determine who comes from Summit? Are we asking for a DNA test?"

In other matters at Tuesday's meeting the Council voted to eliminate helipads as an accessory use to buildings in the city, thus requiring any organization seeking approval for the landing areas to obtain a more strenuous "D" variance from the Board of Adjustment before they were allowed to build the structures.

Overlook Hospital recently was turned down by the Zoning Board on its application to build a helipad after 13 months of hearings on the matter.

The Council also gave its support to an $8.6 million capital plan for 2010 to 2015. One of the major expenditures is approximately $3 million as Summit's contribution to the joint emergency management dispatch plan with New Providence and Berkeley Heights, which may not be completed until next year. Another expenditure calls for $700,000 in metering improvements to the park-and-shop lots in the business district, which may also take two years to complete.

Also approved was an ordinance increasing the floor area ratio for downtown buildings from 225 to 300%, thus paving the way for three-story structures. 

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