Last night, at the Hopewell Township committee meeting, affordable housing obligations and future course of action took center stage.
In the wake of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision on March 10, 2015, New Jersey municipalities are scrambling to form an affordable housing course of action and Hopewell Township, in that regard, is no different.
At last night’s meeting, Hopewell Township Affordable Housing attorney, Ed Schmierer, gave a historic overview offering context to the current state of affordable housing obligations. [quote_box_right]For MercerMe’s article on the legal background, check out COAH in 90 seconds: Making housing accessible, or Affordabullsh*t?. If you don’t know much about this issue, please check that out.[/quote_box_right]
On March 10th, in response to the inaction of COAH (Counsel on Affordable Housing) and COAH’s inability to adopt rules and regulation regarding affordable housing obligations, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued an opinion dramatically shifting the direction of affordable housing in New Jersey. Ultimately, the Court has taken it back the power to itself (and therefore to the Superior Courts) to determine municipal affordable housing obligations and compliance, rather than COAH. [quote_box_left]A thorough article on the current state of COAH can be found on NJ Spotlight in their article COAH is History: State’s Top Court Declares Trouble Agency ‘Moribund.“[/quote_box_left]
Procedurally, municipalities have a reprieve of a 90-day window but, after the 90 days, there is a 30-day window within which towns can file a declaratory judgment (a court action) to present to the court what they have done since 1999 to further their affordable housing and what they plan to do going forward, explained Schmierer. That 30-day period will be between June 8th and July 9th. After filing the declaratory judgment, towns are given 5 months to come up with an affordable housing/fair share plan — something that is accomplished by the Township’s planning board. By December 8th, the Township will need have developed a prospective plan with an explanation of how the Township plans to address its obligations.
Municipalities are engaging in a certain amount of conjecture about obligation totals — Hopewell Township’s number can be upwards of 1400 units of affordable housing (minus 70 units from Project Freedom and also possibly minus units in compensation for money owed from the state to the Township.)
“I don’t want anyone to think that that number has any validity — because we don’t know whether it has validity,” said Hopewell Township Mayor Harvey Lester.
Some in attendance asked about what would happen if a judge determined that Hopewell Township had not adequately acted to satisfy the affordable housing obligation — having possibly satisfied 70 units of 1400.
“It is hard to answer questions where there are precious few answers at this point,” said Mayor Lester. “The ruling seems to indicate that if you want an opportunity to make a presentation to the court to fair share — it appears that those communities, like us, that have shown good faith should be given that 5 months.”
However, not everyone has confidence that the Township would have an easy road to proving good faith.
“We, as a community, might need to face the fact that we have not made a good faith effort — we have just put forward 70 units,” said Bill Connolly, Hopewell Township resident. “While we spent 14 million dollars on housing sites, we have rejected all the plans that were to take place on all those housing sites. All we have to show is 70 and no real progress on any of the others. They all hit stone walls. You shouldn’t take the fair share numbers lightly. We shouldn’t have too optimistic a view.”
Committee member Kevin Kuchinski urged the Township to fight over-development while taking the issue out of the court’s hands and back in the hands of the responsible government.
When pressed to discuss the Township’s plan for Pennytown and whether those units would ever be developed and serve to reduce the overall affordable housing obligation, Mayor Lester indicated that the Township has made no decisions about Pennytown but acknowledged that the Township will have make a decision by December 8th.
Besides the affordable housing obligation amount, Township representatives spoke about COAH’s designation of regions. Hopewell Township, being in Mercer County, is in the same region as Middlesex and Ocean Counties. Committee member John Hart argued that the soil and geological characteristics of Hopewell Township are more closely aligned with Hunterton County and Hart suggested that the Township challenge the region as well. Committee member Vanessa Sandom agreed, “We should consider removing ourselves from our region and this should be included the declaratory judgment.”