The bus trips fromCranford’sOrange Avenuepool to theCountyCourthouseinElizabethwill soon be ending. Residents who are attending court sessions, and are justifiably concerned over a 360-unit apartment building proposal in the Birchwood area of town, are getting some painful lessons in the affordable-housing saga. At this point, it’s reminiscent of the line by Basil Rathbone in a 1943 Sherlock Holmes flick, “be patient, this mystery is rapidly coming to an end.”
With the conclusion of the public hearings on the project’s site plan this month, and despite an expected appeal by the township, the clues as to the outcome do not require a super sleuth.
The players in this mystery deserve the notoriety of a post-drama profile, just like in some movies of the 40s. Take the star of the show: court-appointed Special Master Elizabeth McKenzie. McKenzie has taken herHunterdonCountyoperation statewide into quite a growth business.
The concept of the special master has been around for a while. In the late 80s a special master was appointed to helpBerkeleyHeightssort out their affordable-housing woes. Assignment Judge Edward Beglin Jr. appointed a special master forClark’s battle with the oppressive Rahway Valley Sewage Authority over hook-up issues. As an offshoot of theBerkeleyHeightsbattle, the state Appellate Court wrote on the role of the special master: “Mt.Laurelcases are matters of great public sensitivity. Consequently courts must strive to pursue the appearance of complete impartiality in the decision making process.”
As to McKenzie, a northern-county attorney said, “she’s never seen a builder’s remedy solution she didn’t like.”
Closer to home, during theAvalonBaydevelopment controversy inRosellePark—also involving McKenzie — an elected official at the time said, “We referred to her as ‘her majesty.’” He quickly added, “it was not a term of endearment.”
The reality is that McKenzie has a constituency of one: Judge Lisa Chrystal, the judge in the case who appointed her. At the $250 per hour rate paid byCranford, as revealed by the LocalSource, it is nice work if you can find it.
Also called to the show by Judge Chrystal is Special Hearing Officer Douglas Woflson. Wolfson, a privateEssexCountyattorney, is paid at the rate of $500 an hour, split equally between the township and the developer. Wolfson, a former judge, denied requests to have the hearings take place inCranford. In 2010, Wolfson represented a developer in a hard-fought battle includingHazletonMt.Laurelissues. The special master at the time was the very same Elizabeth McKenzie. The decision went against the township.
Enter Judge Lisa Chrystal.
The judge may be the most notorious person in the Birchwood area. In all fairness, she is only reflecting the significance the Supreme Court gives to the affordable-housing controversy. The terrible flooding and overcrowding issues are seemingly of far less importance in the judicial makeup. It’s a good bet Chrystal, in her tenured judgeship position, will have long moved on to other challenges as the township is left facing the problems of development.
Paul Fader, a prominent attorney, wrote last weekend about theMt.Laurelproblems.
“There aren’t many people on either side of the political spectrum who don’t agree thatNew Jersey’s affordable-housing requirements need to be reformed,” he accurately stated.
By Frank Capece
“However, the extent to this type of reform and the manner in which the state goes about implementing this reform remain in dispute.”
Then there are the localCranfordofficials. There is a certain irony that township officials who played a game of legal roulette on affordable-housing issues left the “leaky bag” ofBirchwood Avenue, and are no longer in office. An interesting exception is former official, and current candidate, Scott Mease. He saw the problem and tried unsuccessfully to motivate his fellow commissioners to take more effective action to avoid the builder’s remedy lawsuit.
The sitting local officials have all set forth their opposition. At times, it can even get a little amusing as they outdo themselves trying to impress the Birchwood area. The poster boy for silliness may be Commissioner Kevin Campbell. He, along with others, urged a useless letter-writing campaign to Chrystal. Later, he incorrectly argued that environmental concerns would trumpMt.Laurel. Recently, he boldly announced he was boycotting theElizabethhearing. Now, we can all imagine the impact that had on McKenzie and Wolfson.
Finally, we are left with real victims of the drama. After the appeals, the local residents will be left with some hefty legal bills and a worse-off neighborhood. Chrystal, tenured, will keep giving decisions, and the traveling duo of McKenzie and Wolfson will move on to a new gig. For the local officials, the costs of flooding, new schools and congestion will be challenging. Sadly for the residents, they will discover that at the end of their mystery is a group of elected and appointed officials who let them down.