Verona is under attack by developers and we are at a pivotal moment in our history with respect to potential overdevelopment and the impact on our schools, infrastructure and overall character and charm of this small town. Our Township Council and Township Manager are at the front lines. Although there is some argument that the position Verona is in is the result of years of poor planning and lack of foresight, we cannot go back and correct the decisions of the past. We can and should all engage as residents and support our Township Council and Township Manager to ensure that decisions are being made with competent counsel and expertise, that our representatives are educating themselves as to Verona’s rights and options, and that decisions are being made in the light, rather than in the shadows of backroom negotiations.
The Township Council and Township Manager have not engaged legal counsel with legal expertise in land use law to guide them in fighting this attack by developers and are seemingly taking guidance and advice from counsel for the developers. As a result, we believe they have an incomplete picture of the facts and are being pressured unjustly into agreements that will result in disastrous overdevelopment. Residents will pay the price if we do not engage and act.
Most residents I’ve talked to are overwhelmed by the complexity of the issue and have disengaged because there is this sense that there is nothing we can do to change the course of action. There is something we can do to help and change the current course of action! The following set of facts are meant to get residents up to speed on the issues and re-engaged. There is more work to be done and residents can impact change if we re-engage and speak to our representatives.
Please educate yourself on what is going on and call your township representatives if you would like to see the township take a different path.
Background on Verona’s Fair Housing Requirements
· Verona, like all New Jersey towns, have a constitutional obligation to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing.
· Towns that can show that their housing plans meet their fair share requirement receive protection (“immunity”) from litigation from developers, including the dreaded “builder’s remedy” litigation that permits landowners and developers to build at higher densities if they can establish that the town had failed to meet its constitutional obligation.
· In 2015, Verona filed an action in court to get a determination that Verona’s housing plan sufficiently met their fair housing obligation.
· Four parties intervened in Verona’s court action: the Fair Share Housing Center (“FSHC”) – a public interest organization devoted to defending the housing rights of New Jersey’s poor – and three property owners – (i) Spectrum 360, Inc. (operating the private school on Sunset Avenue), (ii) Kruvant Brothers (owning lots by the leaf dump and across from the country club), and (iii) Poekel Properties (small site at intersection of Bloomfield Ave. and Linn Drive).
Verona’s Fair Housing “Number” and How to Meet it
· All parties seem to agree that Verona needs to provide 238 fair housing units to meet its obligation. Verona needs to show the court that it has a plan that gets to the 238 fair housing units or else it will lose its immunity and the developers could be free to build very high-density units throughout Verona.
· Verona can meet the 238 obligation through a number of different mechanisms including: (i) building “inclusionary projects” where zoning density is increased and in return the developer dedicates some percentage of units as deed-restricted affordable housing units for at least 30 years, (ii) group homes and other supportive housing, (iii) extension of time on existing deed-restricted affordable housing units, and (iv) bonuses (for things like homes for persons with disabilities).
· For reasons that are unclear, Verona has only pursued “inclusionary projects” to meet its 238 obligation. This means that Verona will have to build hundreds more market-rate units to support the 238 fair housing units.
Verona’s Settlement Talks with Property Owners
· By 2018, Verona came to understand that a settlement with at least FSHC and potentially one or more of the landowners who intervened in the suit would be safer than litigation.
· In October 2018, the Township Council adopted a resolution that would allow Spectrum to sell the property on Sunset Avenue, currently zoned for residential use and used by a school under a variance, to a developer to build a 300-unit apartment complex that would include 20% fair housing units. In addition, the Township Council agreed to take steps to deem the property an “area in need of redevelopment” which would entitle the developer to long-term tax abatement (and therefore greater profits).
· The Township agreed to this resolution because Spectrum claimed that it needed to achieve a certain sale price for the property for it to build a new school in another location and that sale price could not be achieved unless it could offer this tax abatement to a developer. Spectrum has said that if it cannot achieve the price it wants, it will not settle with Verona.
· This is where the Township Council went wrong. Spectrum’s position is inconsistent with its rights under the law, which only requires a municipality to zone to create the realistic likelihood that a profit-minded developer in a rational market will develop the land to create “inclusionary” housing. Even with a builder’s remedy, that is all a landowner is entitled to. A landowner proposing its land for inclusionary development is not entitled to enforce a particular price for the property.
· The 2018 Agreement was burdensome to Verona, as it would have resulted in 240 market rate units, in addition to 60 affordable units, with attendant traffic congestion, public-school financing and other impacts, on a parcel of land currently zoned for low-density residential development in accord with the surrounding neighborhood.
· In January 2019, Verona’s Planning Board found that the Spectrum site was not an “area in need of redevelopment” and therefore the developer could not receive a tax abatement and Spectrum could not sell the property for the price it “needed” and the Agreement with Verona fell through.
Verona Purchases Cameco Property
· In March 2019, the Township purchased the Cameco site at Bloomfield Avenue near the Poekel Properties site to develop the site to help meet Verona’s 238 obligation. Verona is now planning to build a 100-unit all affordable housing project on the Cameco site.
· The Cameco project combined with a small inclusionary project on the Poekel Properties site, plus mechanisms such as group homes and bonuses, would meet the fair share of 238.
Verona Town Council Votes Again to Settle with Spectrum
· This month, the Township Council and Township Manager continued talks with Spectrum even though the Cameco purchase, planned development of the Poekel Properties and other mechanisms could bring Verona the 238 fair housing units it needs to satisfy the court.
· The Township Council and Township Manager seem to be under a mis-impression that, even if Verona commits to pay the entire cost of the Cameco site, and enables the other mechanisms, it must still settle with Spectrum, or else face trial and the risk of a “builder’s remedy.” This is not the case. Verona is free to settle with some of the landowning intervenors, or all of them, or none of them, so long as it can produce a housing plan the court will approve.
· Due to its unwarranted fear of Spectrum, Verona acquiesced to yet another Agreement with Spectrum. The new Agreement provides two alternatives, which have come to be known as “Plan A” and “Plan B” – neither of which are in the best interest of Verona. Under Plan A, the developer would build 200 units on the Spectrum site and the developer or Spectrum would make a payment to Verona’s housing trust fund in lieu of providing affordable housing. In return, the Township Council agreed to would once again consider whether the Spectrum site qualifies as “an area in need of redevelopment.” If the Spectrum site is again not deemed “an area in need of redevelopment,” “Plan B” would take effect. Under Plan B, the developer would build 300 units on the Spectrum site but would only yield 45 units of affordable housing. There would be no in-lieu payment, and no tax abatement.
· The traffic from these units would pour onto the quiet residential roads in Verona as more and more residents try and avoid Bloomfield Avenue. These are the same roads our kids use to walk to school. The damage to the schools, infrastructure, neighborhood, and resulting tax base would be irreversible, forever changing the character of Verona overall. All of this for 45 affordable housing units that may not even be needed if the other projects move forward.
· Possibly worst of all, the Township Council voted on the Spectrum agreement not knowing whether FSHC would agree to a settlement containing Plan B’s unworkable concentration of development and not having asked whether FSHC might agree to a settlement that used only the Poekel Properties and Cameco sites, and neither Spectrum nor Kruvant.
· In its haste, the Township Council was deprived of the most important information—whether in the view of FSHC, the indispensable party to settling the current affordable housing actions all over New Jersey, Verona actually needed to settle with Spectrum, and whether FSHC would support the contemplated settlement.
· Knowledgeable counsel would have cautioned Verona that a site which the landowner refuses to make available for inclusionary housing unless it can realize an above-market price, supported by a discretionary tax abatement, may not actually be “available.” Under fair housing rules, this could doom the site altogether.
Please join me in asking that our Township representatives educate themselves on the impact of the choices before them and engage competent land use counsel to help guide them through this complicated and onerous task rather than to rely on counsel for developers without the benefit of full information or time to consider their options. The residents deserve better. Please reach out to the Township Council and Township Manager to express your views.
Mayor Kevin Ryan
Deputy Mayor Michael Nochimson
Town Manager, Matthew Cavallo
Municipal Building, 600 Bloomfield Avenue, 2nd Floor, Verona, NJ 07044