WEST ORANGE, NJ – Affordable housing issues, particularly as they affect the West Essex Highlands, dominated the agenda of Monday’s West Orange Township Council meeting.

Shirley Bishop, the council’s adviser on the Fair Share Housing Center’s legal actions to create more affordable housing units in West Orange, presented an in-depth analysis of the township’s legal options regarding whether to proceed with building affordable housing units in the Highlands.

Bishop explained that West Orange successfully completed its first two rounds, as mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel decision, to create its fair share of affordable housing units in this region of the state.

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Now, the courts have given the Fair Share Housing Center the authority to oversee round three of this initiative after the Council on Affordable Housing failed to get the job done. According to Bishop’s presentation, this round is presenting the township with challenges.

“The Fair Share Housing Center wants more affordable housing units in West Orange than the township has room to build them,” Bishop said.

She added that this is among the reasons why the center agreed to a 30-percent reduction in the number of affordable housing units it first asked West Orange to build—which went from 1,362 units to 953 units.

Pending legal actions, Garden Homes would be the developer for the affordable housing units it wants to build in the Highlands in return for being able to build luxury homes there. It is currently in mediation with the Township of West Orange and the Fair Share Housing Center regarding this issue.

According to Bishop, Fair Share is pushing deadlines to resolve the legal issues that will be hard for West Orange to meet. She added that the township has some credits due in this area because of its success in building affordable housing in the first two rounds.

“But it is nowhere near what it would take to offset 953 units,” she said. “If West Orange doesn’t agree on accepting the number of units that Garden Home and Fair Share wants, it will have to take further legal action.”

Bishop added that this would be costly and time-consuming, with no guarantee that the number of units will be reduced or be put elsewhere.

“The implications regarding how this issue is resolved will affect everyone in West Orange,” said Council President Joe Krakoviak. “We can see that this will cause a surge in demand for children using our school system, which is already packed to the gills.”

During the meeting, numerous residents of the West Essex Highlands spoke out against this possible construction.

Abraham Bunis led off the testimonies by saying that the “beautiful slope” filled with trees and animals near his home will be destroyed by Garden Home as they build the new units. He said that building on this land would cause problems for people in the Highlands and in the township.

“It will cause flooding on Eagle Rock Way and in the Pleasantdale Chateau area,” said Bunis. “Don’t just take my word for it. This has been attested to by several experts.”

Lisa Paley said that the quality of life in the area would be destroyed if the construction proceeds.

“I would have to move, and I don’t want to do this,” she said. “I love living here. I moved from Brooklyn, where there was no land. This is why I moved to the suburbs. I don’t want to be in a place where once again I will have no land surrounding my home.”

Agreeing with Paley, Susan Gelb said she was also concerned about the high-density issue that the construction would cause.

“In addition, there is only one way in and out of the complex,” she said. “There will be massive traffic jams if this construction proceeds. You will have gridlock if there was an emergency situation.”

Steven Weiss said, “The animal life makes the area so attractive. Our environment has to be protected.”

Jacob Poleyeff, a West Orange resident who lives near the Highlands, said, “Fair Share is run by only a few people. I can’t believe the type of power this group has in the courts. Does this thing ever end? Will we go on to stages four and five?”

After hearing these testimonies, the council went into executive session to discuss the legal issues regarding affordable housing and the township’s next move.