Cranford suggests number for Mount Laurel housing units

CRANFORD, NJ — The township has submitted a plan in Superior Court to satisfy its Mount Laurel housing obligation just weeks before its immunity from “ builder’s remedy” lawsuits was set to expire.

The “declaratory judgment” request is dated Nov. 20, and was signed by Jeffrey Surenian, a Brielle attorney who is representing the municipality in the case.
The township proposes to zone for 85 “affordable housing” units throughout its 5 square miles to meet its third-round housing obligation under the so-called Mount Laurel Doctrine established by the New Jersey Supreme Court more than four decades ago.

According to a chart in the “Summary of Plan for the Township of Cranford,” some of those units will come from a proposed project to redevelop North Avenue near the downtown firehouse.

The development, projected to have a density of 30 units per acre, would yield eight “affordable” housing units. Two of the lots that would make up the project are owned by the township and the other four are privately owned.
The township also proposes to develop 24 South Avenue West, where a construction on .75 acres would yield three affordable units.

The township is projecting that Hartz Mountain Industries’ development at 750 Walnut Ave. to have a density of 10 units per acre, yielding 41 affordable units.

Hartz Mountain began its application process in May with the Cranford Planning Board to have 30.5 acres on a triangular tract rezoned from office and warehouse to residential usage. The developer is seeking to build a 905-unit apartment complex on the Clark border at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road, where a freight rail line borders to the northwest and Hyatt Hills Golf Complex is to the southwest.

Whether the courts will sign off on Cranford’s proposal — and whether Hartz Mountain Industries will fight the plan to limit development at 750 Walnut Ave. to 10 units per acre — is unclear. But the township must come up with a plan to meet its obligation under the third round of Mount Laurel quotas.

The New Jersey Fair Housing Act of 1985 required that the quotas — which the Supreme Court said every town is required to provide for in its zoning laws — be assessed periodically.

The township is seeking to extend its immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits while the court considers Cranford’s proposal. Such lawsuits — essentially a developer’s way to have control of the zoning and building process if a town is declared deficient in affordable housing — were created by the Supreme Court to coerce towns into meeting what it declared was a constitutional requirement of each town.

Mount Laurel housing has been an issue in the township since it was deemed to be failing to meet its early round housing 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 subsidized units there.

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. But since 2013, circumstances have changed as the Birchwood development was reduced by the township to 225 units.

Cranford asked the court in July 2017 to consider the new circumstances and extend the immunity until July 15, 2025. But in her Sept. 19, 2017 ruling, Judge Camille M. Kenny pointed to the reduced density at Birchwood, saying Cranford had not satisfied its obligations — being 20 units short — and ordered the township to address them.

The declaratory judgment request by the town sheds some light on Cranford’s attempt to satisfy the 20-unit shortfall.
According to the document, the township brought a motion in May seeking to make up for the shortfall caused by the reduction of the Birchwood development by applying “rental bonus credits.”

The courts did not rule on the motion, but instead asked the township to explain why it should be permitted to provide 20 fewer units than contemplated by Chrystal.

Accordingly, on Aug. 17, the township filed supplemental papers, along with a proposed form of order seeking relief.
In October, Hartz Mountain opposed the township’s motion and “the court has scheduled oral argument on the motion” on Friday, Nov. 30.

Cranford’s request also reveals the township’s struggle to pinpoint a precise number for its third-round obligation.
According to the court papers, the Fair Share Housing Center, which defines itself on its website as the “only public interest organization entirely devoted to defending the housing rights of New Jersey’s poor through enforcement of the Mount Laurel Doctrine,” Cranford has a third-round responsibility of 994 “affordable” units.

Cranford says that number would be reduced to 440 “affordable” units. And, according to Econsult Solutions, the township’s expert, the township’s obligation is 147 units.

Cranford Mayor Tom Hannen declined to comment on the judgment action.

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