Cranford housing fight likely to be decided in Trenton

CRANFORD, NJ — Cranford Residents Against Overdevelopment, the grassroots activist group behind the “Say No to 750 Walnut” lawn signs around town, is pushing for a legislative effort to stymie what they claim is too much development in too small an area.

CRAO opposes to a redevelopment proposal by Hartz Mountain Industries for its 30.5-acre property at 750 Walnut St. in Cranford, which was formerly used for corporate offices and now houses operations for PSE&G. Hartz Mountain wants to overhaul the site into a 905-unit, multifamily complex of rental units, 105 of them low- and moderate-income apartments.

The informal opposition network is comprised of 100 residents, with a Facebook group of more than 2,000 members. On its website, CRAO urges people to take action through various methods, including contacting local news media outlets as well as municipal, county and state representatives.

Dawn Beresford, an active member of CRAO, told LocalSource on Aug. 30, “We all support affordable housing, but we seem to be living in a regime where each municipality is pushed to agree to dense building plans that overly build up our towns to enrich developers at the detriment of their residents.”

There is long-term resistance to the municipal consequences of the N.J. Supreme Court’s 1975 Mount Laurel decision, in which the court ruled each municipality had the obligation to zone for a “fair share” of “affordable” housing. Nearly a decade later, it further created the concept of a “Builder’s Remedy Lawsuit,” which makes it possible for developers to force compliance in towns.

Since 2010, Cranford has been the subject of two such actions from developers, both claiming Cranford has not met its obligation to account for its share of affordable housing and seeking the court’s intervention to allow them to construct apartment buildings despite zoning restrictions.
In addition to the proposal for 750 Walnut Ave., a project on Birchwood Avenue near the border with Kenilworth has used the Builder’s Remedy argument. The latter has been tentatively settled with the town buying the land and selecting a developer to construct a 225-unit complex, with 30 units deemed “affordable.” This agreement ended up reducing the number of apartments from the originally proposed 400.

The Cranford Township Committee has yet to make a decision on the Hartz redevelopment plan. Township attorney Ryan J. Cooper announced at the Sept. 12 committee meeting that Hartz Mountain’s request to consider redevelopment of 750 Walnut Ave. property will be placed on the committee’s Sept. 26 agenda.

“Since Hartz’s July presentation, the committee has submitted some additional questions for Hartz,” Cooper said at the Sept. 12 meeting. “Hartz has responded last week with approximately 100 pages of information. The individual members of the committee are currently considering that information and are expected to have some additional questions at that meeting on Sept. 26.”

Since being introduced, Hartz’s plans have derailed into an ongoing litigation. A motion was filed by the township to state Superior Court on July 14, and a counter intervening motion from Hartz was subsequently filed.

“The township has filed a motion in 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,” Cooper said at the committee’s Aug. 15 meeting. “As stated in that motion, the township does not believe that it needs residential development on the 750 Walnut site to meet its affordable housing obligation.”
The most recent uproar over Mount Laurel housing came in January with the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling. While the Council on Affordable Housing oversaw affordable housing in New Jersey, and had been empowered to set new quotas for towns every 10 years, battles between how many units each was responsible for ultimately doomed COAH. Gov. Chris Christie tried to bring it under his administration, a move the court blocked, reclaiming its jurisdiction and ruling in January that towns have an obligation to account for the units not included during the previous 10 years, the so-called “gap period,” in addition to the most recent decade.

The controversy over affordable housing, notably in wealthier suburbs, has led legislators — such as Republican Assembly leader Jon Bramnick — to call for special sessions to deal with the issue, essentially re-establishing COAH.

Fighting the battle locally is a steeper climb.
Patricia Moore, an assistant professor of public administration at Kean University, told LocalSource on Sept. 13 that, to her knowledge, resistance from municipalities has not prevailed, but could if they fight the right battle.

“They (local resistance) could prevail if the town can prove that the property the builders want to use for affordable housing is unsuitable for development because of environmental or other substantial planning concerns,” Moore said. “Another reason the municipality could win in court is if the town can prove that the builder’s development would produce more housing units than the municipality’s current or unmet constitutional obligation.”

This pushback against development has been supported by several mayors outside Cranford, including Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso, who recently formed a Union County nonpartisan subcommittee to search for effective ways to deal with Mount Laurel housing requirements.
Despite the pushback, the Fair Share Housing Center, based in Cherry Hill — the main litigant in Mount Laurel cases — has struck deals with several other municipalities.

The Fair Share Housing Center, founded in 1975, describes itself as the only public interest organization entirely devoted to advocating for Mount Laurel housing.

Fair Share spokesman Anthony Campisi told LocalSource in interview on Sept. 5 that the center has reached agreements with more than 130 towns in New Jersey.

In Union County alone, settlements have been reached with 10 towns including Berkeley Heights, Clark, Fanwood, Garwood, New Providence, Roselle Park, Springfield, Summit, Union and Westfield.

“Scotch Plains is the only town currently involved in the main litigation process around fair housing that we have yet to reach a settlement with, and we are optimistic that we will reach a settlement with that township,” Campisi said.
While many towns oppose the addition of high-density housing, Campisi noted that municipalities don’t have to zone for new developments that have 20 percent of their units, essentially subsidized, set aside to fulfill Mount Laurel obligations.

According to Campisi, there are a multitude of alternatives municipalities can pursue to meet their obligation.
“They can focus on providing additional homes for people with disabilities. They can buy down existing market-rate homes to make them affordable for working families,” he said. “They can work with local nonprofits to build 100 percent affordable developments using local housing trust funds and state and federal programs.”

Campisi particularly criticized Clark for its opposition.
“Mayor Bonaccorso chose to rely on developers who build market-rate and affordable homes together instead of taking a different approach,” he said. “And he gave the developers a pretty good deal. Most of them (municipalities) are only setting aside 15 percent of their development as affordable when a lot of mayors get developers to provide 20 percent of the homes as affordable.”

Campisi argued that residents of Clark should be asking Bonaccorso why he struck a generous deal with developers when he is now complaining about developers.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Campisi said.