CRANFORD, NJ — The signs “Say No to 750 Walnut” can be seen from one side of Cranford to the other. They can be spotted in yards, on telephone poles and even bumper stickers. Concentrated in Cranford, they also fan out into Clark and Garwood as well.
It’s a reference to a 30-acre piece of land on the the boundary with Clark on the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road, bordered by a freight rail line to the northwest and Hyatt Hills Golf Complex to the southwest.
Property owner Hartz Mountain Industries wants to build 900 apartments on the site, leveraging Mount Laurel housing rules to get town officials to approve the project. It’s become a flashpoint in Union County for those demanding more “affordable housing” and others decrying “over-development.”
The mayors of Clark and Fanwood hosted a special meeting of their fellow Union County municipal executives on Aug. 16 in Clark to consider the matter. Eighteen of the 21 mayors attended, Clark Mayor Sal Buonoccorso said.
“We discussed the issue of affordable housing and over-development that’s affecting all communities in Union County,” Buonaccorso said. “It’s affecting our schools, sewers, traffic and infrastructure.
“We decided we will form a subcommittee to meet regularly to find effective ways to deal with the issue of public housing. I’m not against affordable housing; I want people to know that. I believe it should be a state legislative matter. I just want everyone to be aware that Union County will look like New York City.”
The issue stems from a 1975 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling, which declared that every town in the state was obligated to provide its “fair share” of “affordable housing”. A subsequent ruling in 1983 introduced a “builder’s remedy” that allowed developers — promising to construct some affordable units — to bypass local town zoning restrictions, if the municipality had not met its obligation.
The court decried what it called exclusionary zoning, rules that limited density or required purchases of large plots of land to build homes that, by economics, kept poorer people from moving into the area.
The state legislature passed the Fair Housing Act in 1985, which established the Council on Affordable Housing that set rules and the number of affordable units for towns roughly every 10 years. By the early part of the millennium, disputes and lawsuits regarding the rules kept COAH from enforcing numbers and, by 2010, Gov. Chris Christie suspended the agency, trying to bring it under his administration.
The court disallowed that and reclaimed jurisdiction last year, saying towns were obligated to provide for the units that were not built in a so-called gap period since the early 2000s.
This resulted in unexpectedly high numbers of affordable units for which towns were required to plan.
“Clark is currently at 98 to 99 percent capacity,” Buonoccorso said. “I’m not happy with the court order, but I will do what needs to be done to protect Hyatt Hills golf course. The builder’s remedy protection makes sure we satisfy affordable housing numbers. The state level numbers are pie-in-the-sky numbers. The density will kill the county.”
Similar proposals have been projected across the county, such as a 300-plus-unit apartment complex in Garwood, a town of 4,200 people, less than a mile square.
At the other end are the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, which is the organization that sues many of the towns for higher lower-income apartments, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“The NAACP opposes the attempts by Union County mayors Colleen Mahr of Fanwood and Sal Bonaccorso of Clark to plot with other Union County elected officials to derail New Jersey’s fair housing policies,” Richard T. Smith, the president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, wrote in a letter to the LocalSource. “Gov. Christie has unsuccessfully tried to gut our fair housing laws since the day he took office, and we’re not going to permit these elected officials to pick up where he left off.
“New Jersey is one of the most segregated states in the country, in large part because of exclusionary zoning policies.”
Assembly minority leader Jon Bramnick, who represents a large swath of Union County, including Cranford and Clark, posted an online video about the subject two weeks ago.
In July, he proposed a special session of the legislature to address the issue, but it was rejected by the Democratic majority.
That has left towns such as Cranford to argue its case in the courts, or its arm reserved for housing issues called the special master. Hartz Mountain last week asked that the application be postponed for its property to be rezoned.
“The application was adjourned because the Township Committee hasn’t advised any direction for redevelopment,” James Rhatican of Hartz Mountain said. “Rather that waste everyone’s time, we thought we’d allow the Township Committee more time on the redevelopment application.”
Cranford Township Committee has said it will take its time on the request.
“Hartz has not yet made the case in favor of its request; the Township Committee has significant questions that are as yet unanswered,” the committee said in a statement. “In the coming days, we will be contacting Hartz Mountain for that information.
“The township has filed a motion to Superior Court to take measures to assure that it maintains compliance with its affordable housing obligations, given certain changed circumstances over the past year or two. As stated in the motion, the township does not believe that it needs residential development on the 750 Walnut site to meet its affordable housing obligation.”
Without any change in the legislature to reinstate something along the lines of COAH, the courts will continue to control the issue, which many people feel leads to high-density development.
“Taking matters into the hands of the law isn’t necessarily the answer,” according to Bramnick in the video he posted online. He called the issue of affordable housing a “crisis” in the area.
“It’s disrespectful to local town enforcements and home rule,” Bramnick said, of the court’s high density housing numbers. “The legislature represents the people. We can overturn an out-of-control court decision using the constitutional amendment and other legislative remedies. Let’s move on the affordable housing issue and let’s make it clear.”