CRANFORD, NJ — The township may have brought its long struggle to meet its third-round Mount Laurel housing obligations to a close when the Planning Board voted to accept a plan that would zone for 105 affordable housing units.
The plan calls for the creation of 85 units the township calculated as part of its “realistic development potential,” or RDP, for the third round under the so-called “Mount Laurel” doctrine established by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The plan also addresses the 20-unit shortfall from the second round, created when the size of the Birchwood development near the Kenilworth border was reduced from 360 units to 225.
The township had been facing a Dec. 31 deadline to address its Mount Laurel housing obligations before its immunity from “builder’s remedy” lawsuits expired, although Judge Camille M. Kenny recently extended the deadline to March.
Attorney Jeff Surenian, who is representing the township before Kenny, told board members and the 30 or so residents in the audience at the special meeting on Dec. 12 that the next step is to submit the plan to the court.
“What will happen next is I think there will be a negotiation,” Surenian said. “And that negotiation will either result in, ‘This plan is dandy’ or that negotiation will result in further changes in which case we might come back and say we need to amend the plan if we want to settle it or we might come back and say, we can settle it, we’re going to defend this plan and address any conditions the court might have.”
Surenian and planner Mike Mistretta of Harbor Consultants presented the board with a detailed review of the plan, which includes a proposed development of a section of North Avenue that includes two to six contiguous pieces of land. The 1.42-acre parcel of land includes an abandoned building and a parking lot owned by the township as well as four pieces of privately owned property.
Mistretta referenced the backlash from residents when a redevelopment plan for the area was discussed earlier this year; the parking lot adjacent to the firehouse serves as a meeting place for various municipal events.
“I know very clearly the feeling from the community, last time I was here talking about this redevelopment area, but yet we have this need,” Mistretta said. “Remember, we have to get to this RDP number and we have to create these units. So, what are our options? We have designated this area as a potential redevelopment area and these lots and blocks would be included, either all of them, some of them, as part of the redevelopment project that again would include an inclusionary affordable housing project. I’m going to capture eight units there on that property.”
Mistretta said a lot of planning would have to occur before development in the area around the firehouse could take place, considering there are four privately owned properties included in it.
Mistretta also said that PSE&G wrote a letter to the township in March stating its desire to purchase 10 to 12 acres of the 30.5-acre triangular tract at 750 Walnut Ave, which is owned by Hartz Mountain Industries. One expert witness for Hartz Mountain described the site as a “jigsaw puzzle” of office space. Hartz Mountain has applied for an application to change the zoning on the site from commercial to residential in order to build a 905-unit apartment complex.
Mistretta said the housing plan anticipates Hartz Mountain building on 20.5 acres at a density of 10 units per acre.
“We recognize it,” Mistretta said. “We’re not trying to hide it. It’s right here in our plan. If that changes, if PSE&G doesn’t want the land, then you apply the density to the overall 30.5 acres. Or if it’s somewhere in between, if it’s 4 acres or 5 acres, we recognize that. We will adjust the RDP accordingly. So that’s an ongoing issue.
“As a planner I can’t receive letters like that and hear testimony and ignore it also. I’m kind of in the middle here and I just want to call attention to it because I’m trying to manage it the best way I know how.”
Mistretta said the housing plan also addresses the township’s “unmet need,” the figure arrived at when subtracting the 105 “affordable” units calculated by the township’s RDP from the number units previously suggested by the courts. He said those suggested Mount Laurel housing numbers were 440 in one case and 994 in another. Mistretta said the larger figure could be reduced by 30 percent through negotiation with the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center, the main litigant in most Mount Laurel cases against municipalities.
Mistretta said the plan calls for a series of “overlay areas” in the downtown district that will relax the restrictions or, in some cases, delete building regulations in those areas. For instance, he said the 5,000-square-foot requirement for building in that area of the township would be relaxed. And Surenian said the overlay areas would act as an incentive for developers to build in those areas. And when they do, a certain percentage of the residential units will be earmarked for affordable housing.
Deputy Mayor Ann Dooley said Mistretta had done an excellent job of creating a plan that works in concert with the master plan’s intention to keep higher-density development toward the downtown area, taking into account construction in neighboring municipalities.
“Most of us know what our situation is in Garwood, Roselle Park, Clark, the incredible density that is occurring in our microregion,” Dooley said. “By developing the plan in this way, I think, it gives us the best opportunity or a solid opportunity to integrate all that density along our east-west corridor. All of it is coming there and/or in Clark with mass transit, a better traffic plan. I think it’s the only way to go to integrate this. In Clark, 177 units are coming on Walnut Avenue; 550 are coming in Garwood on North and South avenues; another 300 to 400 in Roselle Park on Westfield Avenue and North Avenue. We have to have a plan that allows us to integrate not just our own affordable housing requirement but to comprehend and accommodate what is coming on our borders.
“I have to say none of us are going to love it, but I think you did a really good job with what we are confronted with and I thank you for that.”
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 has a March deadline for immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits while the court considers Cranford’s proposal. Such lawsuits, which allow developers 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 induce towns into meeting what it declared a constitutional requirement.