WAYNE, NJ – Two ordinances up for introduction at Wednesday night’s Wayne Town Council meeting revolved around Wayne’s affordable housing obligation, also known as their Mount Laurel obligation.  The introduction of Ordinance 31 involving the Rockledge property on Hamburg Turnpike passed 6-2, while the introduction of Ordinance 26 involving the GAF property off of Alps road failed 3-5. However, a closed executive session was called and when the Council came back from the session, the Council voted again, and the introduction of Ordinance 26 was passed 5-3.

These two ordinances were basically identical except for the properties involved, who the owners of the property were as well as the number of proposed units to be built at each property. 

A settlement was reached with property owners mentioned in these Ordinances earlier this year. The township agreed in these settlements to amend the zoning ordinances for these properties and allow them to become a part of Wayne’s affordable housing plan. The Rockledge property is owned by K. Hovnanian North Jersey Acquisitions, LLC.  They would be allowed to build up to 105 units there.  While up to 444 units would be allowed to be built on the GAF property, now owned by Wayne Property Holdings, LLC.

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During the public comments portion of the meeting, several Wayne residents called in to speak on the matter.  The first was former Wayne Councilwoman Ronnie Miller-Ryan who expressed how significant the matter was.

“This is no small issue,” she said. “In fact, it's the most important issue on this evening's agenda and it's the most important decision that you will make as council people. And, it will have the greatest impact on the long-term and short-term outcome for the Township.”

Miller-Ryan felt that the “affordable housing process has not been held in a transparent way.”

“The Mayor claimed that this process would be an open one. It has not been,” she said.  Her complaints went beyond transparency as she lamented that the township has put “our egregious affordable housing mandate in the hands of the developers.” 

Mayor Chris Vergano and several of the Wayne Town Council Members have previously stated that because the matter is under litigation, they are not allowed to discuss details in public, and so all discussions revolving affordable housing must be held in closed sessions.

The Mount Laurel Doctrine is a law that mandates that every municipality in New Jersey must allow for a certain number of affordable housing units for ‘very low income,’ ‘low income’ and moderate income.’  If the municipality does not have the requisite number of units, they must be built. There have been two prior rounds of obligations that the Township has already met by building developments such as Sienna Village and Brittany Chase Condominiums, to name a few. The third round is the current obligation for the township.

Wayne resident Evan Covello called in to the Wednesday night meeting and asked the Mayor what the current obligation was for the township. “Has that number been determined? And how many development projects are currently being planned to meet the obligation?” he asked.

Vergano answered: “The problem is the numbers are not defined at this point. The numbers are negotiated between the township and Fair Share Housing, then they need to get approved by the judge. Our goal is to bring the number down to have the least impact on our community. We're not doing this with blinders on. We will do the best that we can for Wayne Township.”

There are two ways for Wayne to fulfill its obligation. The first is for the township to build a development or two of all affordable housing units. The second choice is to allow developers to build the units, which would involve no-cost to the Township, however, developers make more money building market-cost units, so they will only build developments with up to 20% of the units designated as affordable – this has been called the ‘Builder’s Remedy.’  This means that four or five times the number of units must be built by these private developers in order to meet the affordable housing obligation.

Miller-Ryan asked the Council and Administration to “please consider what the long term impacts to our environment, schools, positive ratable base, and quality of life will be when the increased traffic that bonus density will bring along with the negative impact it will have on property values as you increase the housing stock of our town.”

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Fran Ritter commented after her initial no vote on Ordinance 26. “I want to be clear that my ‘no’ vote for affordable housing tonight was not because I don't believe in affordable housing,” she said. “Affordable housing in its purest sense is there to diversify a neighborhood and to bring inclusion into a neighborhood. To share the wealth of good resources, solid resources like our schools and better housing and better lives for those that don't have the means to do so and fortunately we have beautiful neighborhoods and a beautiful community in Wayne.”

The next day, Ritter clarified further: “My ‘no’ vote was in response to the Township’s failure to satisfy its affordable housing obligation through a thoughtful planning and financing process it controls with full input from the Town Council and the Wayne Community. As a consequence of this failure, the Town Council is being presented with ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ plans dictated by developers which is a process ripe for corruption instead of one that creates affordable housing and promotes diversification.  I voted ‘yes’ only to mitigate damage to current negotiations. To satisfy Wayne's remaining obligation, I expect this broken process to be replaced with one that makes affordable housing the goal and not collateral to the profit motive of developers.”

“It is a big predicament that we're dealing with,” added Sixth Ward Councilman Jon Ettman. “There’s not an easy way out. We do have to rely on our counsel, and their guidance. These are professionals who have been dealing with this matter for years and have an extraordinary amount of experience and knowledge in this particular area.  So, some of our decisions are made in learning about these issues from people of their expertise and qualifications, and we listen to them, and we take their guidance and then as a council we ultimately make a decision, but it is a tough spot. We're trying to navigate this with the best interest of this town, as always, and that should not go unnoticed.”

The original vote on the introduction of Ordinance 26 failed with five ‘no’ votes from: Franco Mazzei, Fran Ritter, Al Sadowski, Jill Sasso and Council President Joe Scuralli.  After the closed executive session, the re-vote passed the introduction with Ritter and Sasso changing their votes to yes. 

The introduction of Ordinance 31 passed with only two ‘no’ votes from Ritter and Sadowski.

Sadowski told TAPinto Wayne that he could not comment on details because the issue continues to be under litigation, but he did say in regard to his ‘no’ votes: “The problem that I have is that Wayne Township still doesn’t even know what its affordable housing number is for this round.  As we continue to approve these settlements, are we going to exceed what our requirement will end up being?” 

“The vote not passing last night was going to put the Town of Wayne in a very risky position,” explained Sasso the next day. “Where we could lose our immunity and could lose the benefit of the very good deals that have been negotiated and could put at risk for future negotiations.”

Sasso’s initial no vote was based on her belief that the Mt. Laurel Doctrine is “antiquated” and “broken.” Sasso believes that the state has lost sight on what was originally intended by the law. “They are on a very narrow-viewed path forward for executing what’s in place rather than re-assessing where we are and coming up with a better solution.”  She admitted that she figured that her initial ‘no’ vote would be in a minority and the introduction of the ordinance would pass. “I think we were all genuinely surprised at the number of no votes against it. So, I believe we all have very similar concerns.”

Scuralli the Fourth Ward Councilman and Mazzei, the Third Ward Councilman would not comment as to why they voted ‘no’ for Ordinance 26 and ‘yes’ to Ordinance 31.  Of note: the GAF property that was the subject of Ordinance 26 is located on Alps Road which is the dividing line between Scuralli’s and Mazzei’s Wards.

Also calling in to the meeting was Bill Brennan, a Little Falls resident “with an interest in Wayne.”  He brought up his plan to solve the affordable housing mandate by developing above the Willowbrook Mall.  After reiterating his plan, Brennan said he wasn’t interested in hearing the Mayor’s opinion on “the politics of ‘no that will never work.’”

The Willowbrook Mall is in Wayne’s First Ward and the Councilman for the ward, Richard Jasterzbski spoke up against Brennan’s plan, saying that the Mall is built in a flood zone. “How and why would anybody want to propose putting residents back into a flood zone is beyond me,” he said.

Ritter who has described Brennan as her partner, came to the defense of his plan: “The project that was being put forward by Mr. Brennan was a project with an elevated platform with a development on top,” she said. “This was intended to be something that would solve the affordable housing issue and help to revitalize the mall.”

Brennan’s plan is contingent on the approval of Brookfield Properties which owns the Willowbrook Mall and the surrounding property.

Vergano had written an email to Nancy Barbary, the General Manager of Willowbrook, and asked her to look into the plan.  During the Council Meeting, the Mayor read his email aloud and also the response from Barbary which said that Brookfield Properties had looked into the feasibility of Brennan’s plan and declined.

Dr. Linda Nardone, another Wayne resident who called in to the meeting, asked the council to consider adding more mixed-use properties to the Town’s Master Plan. “The mixed-use zoning could first, support businesses. Two, it supports residents of Wayne and housing flexibility and services. And three, perhaps helps to satisfy our affordable housing requirement and increase our tax base. And I say: ‘what's wrong with all of that as a possibility.’” She said that she would submit her ideas into the final report and that document would go for approval at the next planning board meeting on August 10th.

Both of the ordinances were officially introduced on Wednesday, but that does not mean they have been passed into law; they are now officially under consideration. They will be up for that vote during next month’s Town Council meeting on August 19. 

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