FAIRFIELD, NJ — The Fairfield governing body passed four ordinances this week that spell out the final affordable housing mandatory set-aside requirements for the township. With the passing of these ordinances, the township is protected from lawsuits, according to the mayor and council.
Township Administrator Joseph Catenaro gave a brief history of New Jersey’s affordable housing laws and a summary of what Fairfield has done to comply with the new mandates.
He explained that with the passing of the Mt. Laurel decision in 1975, municipalities had to provide housing that was affordable to low-and moderate-income households. Due to some confusion with the law, the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) was developed in 1985 to establish regulations for each municipality in terms of numbers.
From 1985-1999, a second round of state obligations was established, and the Township of Fairfield met them. The situation remained status quo until 2015, when former governor Chris Christie’s administration repeatedly failed to comply with an order to establish a new set of guidelines, according to Catenaro.
In response to this, the New Jersey Supreme Court voted 6-0 to give the lower courts the responsibility to decide on a case-by-case basis how many homes should be made available to low and moderate income residents in municipalities across the state.
According to Catenaro, this ruling allows developers and low-to moderate-income residents to legally challenge any municipality that does not have a fair share of affordable housing. It also allows municipalities to defend their compliance with the law, he added.
Catenaro said that Fairfield Township did not want the courts to dictate which properties could be developed, and has been proactive in rezoning since 2015 to avoid legal issues such as builder’s remedy lawsuits.
Builder's remedy suits are used by developers to construct housing with higher density than would be allowed under local zoning laws, according to Catenaro. The administrator further explained that since 1983, courts have allowed builders to sue towns that have no plan to comply with the state Supreme Court's 1975 decision, which requires each town to provide its fair share of low- to moderate-income housing.
The rezoning process began on May 11, 2015 when the Fairfield mayor and council unanimously passed an ordinance that created two overlay zones. One was a multiple-family dwelling residential overlay zone, and the other was a commercial overlay zone.
According to Catenaro, the zones are specific to properties on Plymouth Street, New Dutch Lane, Two Bridges Road, Passaic Avenue and Fairfield Road. These areas were considered transitional zones, meaning they are in areas composed of mixed land uses, Catenaro said.
The administrator stressed that the governing body has worked hard not to disturb any residential zones. With the adoption of these four new ordinances, he said that the township is immune from lawsuits and residential areas are protected.
Some local municipalities have allowed the building of 25-to-35 units per acre. The courts ultimately agreed to Fairfield’s proposal of 13 units, according to Catenaro.
He stated that standard the set-aside requirements for affordable housing is typically 20 percent, but the Township of Fairfield was able to keep it down to 10 percent by adopting a proactive ordinance three years ago that set this limit before the courts could get involved.
All the building that has been done in town is at this lower rate. However, moving forward, as courts have mandated, the rate is 20 percent on sales and 15 percent on rentals, according to Catenaro.
“Fairfield is light years ahead of other communities,” he said.
The governing body also introduced a bond ordinance that would appropriate $750,000 for the acquisition of a firetruck with the authorization of the issuance of $712,500 in bonds or notes to finance part of the appropriation.
The public hearing will be held on Monday, Aug. 26.