Lawmaker predicts Mount Laurel could crash real estate

Photo by Chuck O’Donnell
Republican Assembly member Holly Schepisi, left, who represents parts of Bergen and Passaic counties, and Jon Bramnick, right, the minority leader from Union County, addressed a crowd at Union County College on March 5 regarding Mount Laurel housing.

CRANFORD, NJ — A northern New Jersey lawmaker told local residents that leaving the fate of Mount Laurel, or “affordable,” housing in the hands of the court system could “crash the entire real estate market of the state of New Jersey.”
State Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a Republican who represents the 39th Legislative District, including parts of Bergen and Passaic counties, spoke at a town hall meeting March 5 about the need to halt any further affordable housing development before a statewide inventory of projects could be studied.

She was joined at the event at Union County College’s Roy Smith Theater by Jon Bramnick, the Assembly Republican minority leader who represents the 21st Legislative District, including Cranford.

Schepisi and Bramnick warned the 75 or so residents at the meeting that the state’s current approach to Mount Laurel housing could have widespread consequences.

“Because it is going through the courts, there is absolutely no statewide record as to what’s taking place. Nobody, including DCA, HMFA or any other government agency in the state of New Jersey right now knows how many projects in total have been approved simultaneously,” Schepisi said, referencing the Department of Community Affairs and the Housing Mortgage Finance Agency. “Nobody knows exactly how many units, what type of units, whether or not we’re going to crash the entire real estate market of the state of New Jersey. We need to stop this. We need to do an evaluation. We need to see what has been approved, what is coming down the pike and be able to make an informed determination as governmental officials as to what we need to do next.”

Mount Laurel housing has been a hot-button issue in Cranford for at least a decade. Hartz Mountain Industries has made an application to the Planning Board seeking to have a 30.5-acre triangular parcel of land at 750 Walnut Ave. rezoned from office and warehouse to residential usage.

The developer is seeking to build a 905-unit apartment complex on the land located on the Clark border at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road, with a freight rail line bordering to the northwest and Hyatt Hills Golf Complex to the southwest. The plan calls for the construction of three five-story buildings and two four-stories buildings, plus about 1,800 parking spaces.

The township took a big step toward bringing its long struggle to meet its third-round Mount Laurel housing obligations to a close when the Planning Board voted in November to accept a plan that would zone for 105 subsidized Mount Laurel housing units.

The plan calls for the creation of 85 units the township calculated as part of its “realistic development potential,” or RDP, for its third-round requirements out of what developed following the so-called “Mount Laurel” doctrine established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1975. 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 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 June 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 in subsequent Mount Laurel rulings to coerce towns into meeting what it declared a constitutional requirement.

The Fair Housing Act established the Council on Affordable Housing, which was to develop guidelines and regulations for determining the number of subsidized units each town had to zone for and to administer those rules. However, due to lawsuits and partisan battles, it became increasingly dysfunctional and the New Jersey Supreme Court divested the agency of its authority in 2015 and reclaimed it for itself.

Schepisi and Bramnick have been two of the most vocal opponents of the courts reclaiming Mount Laurel authority in the state. Schepisi has sponsored 10 bills in the Assembly addressing the obligation, including the moratorium.
Bramnick said this system puts local officials, such as Cranford’s five-member committee, in a difficult position.

“I don’t blame local officials in Cranford because what happens is when the litigation begins, you’re basically told, ‘Here are your options. Either you cut a deal or we go to trial,’” Bramnick said. “And, when we go to a trial, it’s going to be up to a judge in Union County to decide how many units works in Walnut Avenue. And that’s the problem we have. With all due respect to my friends on the bench, the Superior Court judges in New Jersey, a lot of smart people, none of them are experts on planning.

“They do their best. So, they have to gather all this information and decide what’s the compromise here on Walnut Avenue.”
The same night that Schepisi and Bramnick, a Westfield-based attorney, were speaking about overdevelopment, the Township Committee was facing opposition from residents over a resolution to create special needs housing on Myrtle Street. The creation of the housing at 83 Myrtle St. was part of the township’s third-round affordable housing plan.

However, several residents in and around Myrtle Street voiced their concerns about the project, including fears of increased traffic and the removal of large trees that serve as a noise and visual buffer to the nearby Parkway.

Before the vote was taken, Deputy Mayor Ann Dooley and Committeeman Tom Hannen acknowledged the residents’ concerns. So did Committeewoman Mary O’Connor who said she had met with several of the residents. She said she wanted the township to identify alternative locations for the group homes. She also suggested the township look into remediating abandoned properties into Mount Laurel housing options.

“I’m not comfortable moving forward with this because of the concern of the residents,” O’Connor said. “I stood in their backyards. I’ve seen how close the property line is.

The committee voted 4-1 to adopt the resolution. O’Connor was the only member of the committee to vote no.