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As the June 8th declaratory judgment filing deadline looms, municipalities are scrambling to file their declaratory judgments and begin the process of planning to plan for their affordable housing obligations.

“The declaratory judgment process is when a town files a lawsuit, promising to meet a [not yet undetermined] obligation, while getting immunity during the planning period,” said Township Planner Frank Banisch. “Right now, we don’t know what the number we’re shooting for but we have to shoot for something or someone will shoot us.”

The exact method and timing that the planning board should be taking for this process, in establishing a housing plan or element, has been a discussion at planning board and committee meetings over the past couple of months.

At the April Township planning board meeting, Committee member Vanessa Sandom, during the public comment period of the meeting, asked for more specific details regarding the affordable housing plan, in particular who should be taking the lead in the planning process — the committee, the planning board, or the attorneys. To that, Banisch replied that he would be the lead-person responsible for checking and compiling data but was not yet certain about the timing, whether the planning would beging before or after the filing of the declamatory judgment.

Also, as part of the conversation in April, the question was raised about whether Pennytown would be included in the housing plan and who, the planning board or the committee, would determine whether it is included. To this, Banisch replied that this would be up to the governing body, the committee. Both Banicsh and, planning board attorney, Ron Morgan agreed that it does not make sense to remove components of the existing housing plan.

“Taking it out of the plan doesn’t make sense but that doesn’t mean that I’m recommending to follow through with it,” said Banisch in April. “I’m saying that there needs to be a replacement for it if you’re going to take it out.”

Specific affordable housing projects are just part of the planning process. Hopewell Township is combing through the variety of factors important to the court (and prior to that, COAH) in establishing an affordable housing obligation amount such as vacant land. Theoretically, the larger the amount of buildable vacant land, the more potentially high the affordable housing obligation, assuming that other factors are in place to require it. Therefore, the Township is identifying and accumulating data regarding vacant land including background information such as whether the land is agricultural, on sewer service, includes wetlands, etc. Committee person Kevin Kuchinski requested that the planning board be provided with clearer guidance about the treatment of conserved open-space and agricultural lands in this analysis at the next planning board meeting.

Other information the Township is accumulating has to do with the availability to employment. “We’re looking at whether the affordable housing calculations are based on an over-inflation of job availability and employees,” said Banisch. “The vacant land and assessments are the biggest area we are trying to get a grip on.”

In the meantime, interested land owner/developers are lining up to have the chance to have their properties including in the Township’s housing plan, identified as a potential location for affordable housing. See “Developer Gets in Line for Affordable Housing in Hopewell Township” and “Scotch Road / Dublin Road Affordable Housing Developer Details.” The Township has received two letters from developers so far indicating an interest in having land developed. In response to these requests, the planning board attorney Ron Morgan prepared a letter for the planning board’s approval indicating that the planning board acknowledges receipt of the letter and that the planning board will consider the properties for inclusionary zoning.

The planning board engaged in debate about whether the wording should specify that the planning board was not necessarily agreeing to the request.

“Consider means to evaluate. The planning board is not satituorily required to approve. They’ll think about. Examine,” said Hopewell Township Mayor Harvey Lester.

Findings regarding vacant land and employment, as well as what transpires when the judges meet on June 8th, will be presented to the planning board as this process continues. For other article on MercerMe about affordable housing, check out this link.

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Mary Galioto
Mary Galioto is the founder, publisher and editor of MercerMe, and a lawyer. Originally from Brooklyn, Mary has progressively moved deeper and deeper into New Jersey, settling in the heart of the state: Mercer County. Formerly the author of an embarrassingly informal blog, Mary is a lifelong writer and asker of questions and was even mentioned, albeit briefly, in the New York Times and Washington Post. In her free time, Mary fills her life with excessive self-reflection, photographing mushrooms, and misguided adventures in random hobbies. Mary also works as the PR Coordinator at the Hopewell Valley Arts Council, serves on the volunteer Board of Trustees of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail (LHT), serves on the Hopewell Borough Board of Health, is a member of the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance, and holds the elected position as the Hopewell Borough Democratic Committee Municipal Chairwoman.

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