Court affirms Cranford’s housing lawsuit immunity

Photo by Jenny Goldberg
At the Sept. 26 Cranford committee meeting, township attorney Ryan Cooper announced not all relief was granted from the Township’s July 14 motion regarding the Hartz Mountain property at 750 Walnut Ave. The township was ordered to go back and amend their second-round Mount Laurel housing obligations before proceeding to round three.

CRANFORD, NJ — Cranford must meet its unfilled obligations from previous rounds of Mount Laurel housing obligations before it can alter its plans for subsequent stages, a Superior Court judge ruled Sept. 19.

The ruling comes in the context of Hartz Mountain Industries’ proposal to redevelop a 30.5-acre property at 750 Walnut Ave. on the Clark border from an office complex into 905 apartment units. The township had proactively asked the court on July 14 to extend its immunity from “builder’s remedy” lawsuits for its second and third round of Mount Laurel housing obligations, but Judge Camille M. Kenny told Cranford that it still had to satisfy the municipality’s unfulfilled round two “fair share” housing obligation before she would look beyond that.

The 1975 N.J. Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel decision required all municipalities in the state to zone for a “fair share” of housing to all “economic strata, including low and moderate income.” It later created the “builder’s remedy” to coerce the towns into meeting the court’s demand.

The Council on Affordable Housing was then created by the state legislature to determine quotas and identify techniques municipalities could use to comply with affordable housing obligations, determined within set time periods referred to as “rounds.”

Lawsuits and disputes on COAH’s quotas for the last round led to a disbandment in 2010, leading the courts to reinsert themselves into the issue last year.

The first round of quotas included the years from 1987 through 1993. The second was from 1993 through 1999, and third is 1999 through 2018. For each round, municipalities were to project housing needs, account for the court’s “affordable” housing mandate, and zone accordingly.

Cranford was deemed to be failing to meet its early round obligations, resulting in years of litigation surrounding property on Birchwood Avenue near the Kenilworth border. In 2008, the township was sued by Cranford Development Associates under the builder’s remedy provision as it sought to construct apartments with affordable units on Birchwood.

Nearly five years later, in 2013, Judge Lisa Chrystal granted CDA the right to construct a 360-unit complex and also granted Cranford immunity from further Mount Laurel lawsuits until Dec. 31, 2018.

Since 2013, circumstances have changed as Cranford successfully reduced the Birchwood development to 225 units. While Cranford has a little more than a year until its immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits expires, it asked the court in July to consider the new circumstances and extend the immunity for rounds two and three from 2018 to July 15, 2025.
However, in her Sept. 19 ruling Kenny pointed to the reduced density at Birchwood, saying Cranford had not satisfied round two obligations — being 20 units short — and ordered the township to address those requirements before proceeding to round three.

Since Kenny refused to consider Cranford’s proposed changes to round three obligations, it also negated Hartz’s attempt to intervene and force the town to include 750 Walnut Ave. in those quotas.

At the beginning of the Sept. 26 Cranford Township Committee meeting, township attorney Ryan Cooper announced Kenny’s ruling, to which residents responded with applause and cheers.

“While the court did not grant the town all of the relief it’s seeking, it does have immunity from Mount Laurel lawsuits through the end of 2018,” he said, and described the township’s next step. “Going forward, the township will amend its second round of Mount Laurel plan through court process and develop a plan to satisfy its third round obligation, which will also require court approval when ready,” Cooper said.

“In this third round Mount Laurel obligation, the township plans to consider what role (the) 750 Walnut Avenue property should play, and the township remains committed to including the public input into consideration any potential redevelopment of 750 Walnut site and will advise the public accordingly.”

James Rhatican, a Hartz spokesman, said in a Sept. 29 email that Hartz was only concerned with Cranford’s round three obligation.

Rhatican told LocalSource that Hartz petitioned the court after the township’s July 14 request because “the motion to (amend round three) implicated 750 Walnut and would have affected Hartz’s redevelopment of that property; therefore, it was the component of the motion that was of concern to Hartz and the only portion of the motion that we really cared about.”
Since the July 14 hearing, Hartz has postponed its request to have 750 Walnut Ave. be declared “in need of redevelopment” until Oct. 24. The designation changes the regulations regarding rezoning and redevelopment.

There is also a request before the Cranford Planning Board to recommend rezoning the property from commercial to residential.
In a Sept. 28 email, Rhatican said of Hartz’s postponement of request that it “was in everyone’s interest, to allow a meeting between the town and Hartz, particularly since the judge had recommended that the town negotiate with us. The goal is to have a candid conversation about redevelopment of 750 Walnut. That’s all we really wanted from our motion in court, so we are pleased with that result.”

The entire transcript of the Sept. 19 court hearing may be found at www.cranford.com.

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