Cranford strikes deal for Mount Laurel housing number

CRANFORD, N.J. — The Township Committee has approved a deal to settle the municipality’s court-mandated Mount Laurel housing requirements, agreeing to zone property for residential use during the next half decade that would include 440 reduced-rate apartments.

According to township attorney Ryan Cooper at the committee’s Nov. 12 meeting, the agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill includes designating 49 units at the much-disputed 750 Walnut Ave. location owned by Hartz Mountain Industries. Hartz Mountain is suing the township after the committee voted to endorse the Planning Board’s recommendation to not rezone the property for a 905-unit apartment complex.

Other locations specified in the agreement include the former Wells Fargo bank at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Chestnut Street, and several properties designated under the township’s Market to Affordable Housing Program, which identifies abandoned or derelict properties for refurbishment.
The settlement, which has yet to receive final court approval, proposes the bulk of units for the town center yet maintains the town’s “historic character,” Cooper said.

It “concentrates redevelopment downtown, preserves character for all single-family neighborhoods, creates a variety of housing for all Cranford residents, gives certainty on affordable housing obligation, give immunity and repose until 2025, and gives a surplus of affordable units for future changed circumstances,” the attorney said during his presentation.

Cooper specifically addressed 750 Walnut Ave. because of its public interest, he said. The 30.6-acre property is envisioned for a 6-acre PSE&G substation, and 245 townhouses, with 96 being age-restricted and 49 without restriction.

“The settlement, if approved at a fairness hearing, would grant immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits until 2025,” he said.

The day before the Township Committee meeting, Cranford held an informational session to inform residents about the issue Monday, Nov. 11.

“It’s incredibly frustrating for people in both political parties to see this and say, ‘How come this can’t be made easier? How come this these onerous requirements can’t go away? How come it’s so difficult to do,’” Mayor Patrick Giblin said at that meeting. “This is what I believe is within the best interests of the township, to put this to bed and to give ourselves some certainty.”

The Mount Laurel housing law dates back to 1975, when the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling that obligates every town in the state to zone for its fair share of affordable housing. Subsequently, the “builder’s remedy” lawsuit provision gave developers considerable authority in building apartment projects to coerce towns to meet the court’s mandate. The court has jurisdiction as to the number of units required in each town.

Cooper and Michael Edwards, Cranford’s affordable housing attorney, gave this background to residents at the Nov. 11 meeting.

“In a town like Cranford, like many towns in northern Jersey, the fair share number is going to be quite large,” Edwards said. “But, a town fully built out with almost no vacant land, it’s not realistically going to be able to zone before the creation of its fair share of affordable units.” Addressing concerns that Cranford’s schools would be overwhelmed by an influx of students and the development required to accommodate the affordable units, Edwards said the court would dismiss the argument.

Cooper stated that when Cranford was looking to determine its requirement, there was no consensus on the township’s top number. The Fair Share Housing Center claimed the number was as high as 1,227 units.

Resident David Pringle, who lives on Walnut Avenue, stated at the Township Committee meeting that the deck is stacked for developers, who don’t care about affordable housing, to profit.

“Mistakes were made in years past, and the current Township Committee is living with the poor decisions from past Township Committees,” he said. “This Township Committee, the staff, the Planning Board, folks that are in dire need of affordable housing and folks that just want better housing options have been dealt a really, incredibly lousy hand.

“The dealers of that hand have been developers that … abuse the human need for affordable housing to line their own pockets. And the politicians, by their actions and inactions, Democrat and Republican in Cranford … not now but five, and 10, and 15, and 20 years ago have failed to do not just their constitutional but their moral obligation to provide affordable housing within reasonable constraints. That’s the hand you have been dealt, and I thank you for the proposed settlement.”