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Letter to the Editor: Affordable Housing At Any Cost?

SOD's Communication Chair asks why towns with affordable housing units built before COAH laws went into effect cannot qualify to satisfy COAH obligations.

New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) requirements are killing small towns across this state. Don’t get me wrong: I fully embrace the concept of affordable housing.

There are many communities that do not have affordable housing within their borders and have not done anything to try to reach that goal. This is not a case of NIMBY. This is the simple reality that many older communities do not have land left to develop. They may have significant numbers of truly affordable housing units within their borders which do not qualify toward their COAH obligation simply by the virtue that they were built before the COAH obligations went into effect. 

So, along come the big, bad developers who have no interest in constructing affordable housing except, that is their ace in the hole to develop the last parcels of open space left in already developed communities. Simply by including an affordable housing component as part of a monstrosity of a development, they have now made the entire plan “inherently beneficial.” 

So what if the new development will overcrowd the schools? Who cares if already overburdened taxpayers will have to pay even higher taxes due to this new development? Does it matter if existing emergency services will not be able to keep up with the demand this new development will incur? Is it really a problem if, by developing this unpaved, pristine land, the rest of the community will be subjected to even more flooding than they already experience? Increased air, water, noise and light pollution aren’t a big deal, are they?  

The local zoning boards hear these applications, knowing full well that if they deny the variances requested by the developer, the next step is Superior Court. Regulations say that if negative criteria are shown to exist by approving the new development, then it is okay to deny the variances. But the reality is that once an affordable housing component is included, the courts will almost always side with the developer. So, what is “inherently beneficial” to one group trumps all of the negative criteria dumped on the existing residents. Just ask the people of Cranford.

It has cost the taxpayers of Cranford almost $600,000 so far to try to prevent Birchwood, an affordable housing development, to be built on a 16-acre parcel of land that abuts a flood plain area.  

Bergen County has many older, developed communities where this has become an issue. New Milford has only one large tract of undeveloped land left. It is a 13-acre parcel currently owned by Suez/United Water. They are in contract with the S. Hekemian Group to sell the land so that it can be developed into a 70, 500 sq. ft supermarket with a 354 space parking lot, a four-story 221 unit apartment building (of which 40 units would be affordable housing), a four-story 428 space parking garage, and a 4300 sq. ft. bank with drive up lanes and more parking.

Ironically, if this plan is allowed to go forward, it will not decrease New Milford’s COAH obligation at all. The size of this development actually triggers an increased obligation for even more affordable housing. Also of note is the fact that Suez/United Water has blamed the severe flooding experienced by New Milford as a byproduct of overdevelopment, not on mismanagement of their reservoir systems.  

If Suez/United Water and the S. Hekemian Group are so eager for more development, perhaps they should try to develop a conscience instead of overdeveloping older municipalities.  

What does New Milford lose if this development is allowed to proceed? We lose the quality of life that we expected when we chose to live in New Milford. We lose the last undeveloped land in our town, a parcel many of us had hopes of seeing as an oasis of green. We lose the peace of mind knowing that our children are safe at New Milford High School: this development is planned for right next door.

The Department of Environmental Protection has said that the contamination on the property has been remediated but that the groundwater is still highly contaminated. No one has answered our questions concerning what will happen when they start digging. The water table is very high on this land that is adjacent to the Hackensack River. When the digging starts and the groundwater rises to the surface, who will monitor the health and welfare of our students? When the 18-wheeler trucks are making deliveries and the morning rush hour is exacerbated by a huge residential development, who will bear the responsibility if even one single student is injured?      

There is a simple answer to this problem and it lies with our Legislature and our Governor. Enact legislation to allow housing units constructed before the COAH regulations went into affect to be counted towards a community’s COAH obligation.

New Milford has over 2000 pre-existing apartments that would qualify. Many other older, developed communities are in this same predicament. There needs to be a bipartisan effort to achieve this legislation so that the generations to come will know what it is like to have open space. This isn’t rocket science. 

Isn’t it time to put aside party lines and work together to make a meaningful difference in the lives of our citizenry? Isn’t it time for the Legislature and Governor Christie to protect us from overzealous developers who care nothing about affordable hosing and are only interested in making money? Isn’t it time to save the little open space left?

Lori Barton

Martin Wolff November 19, 2012 at 02:36 PM
Thanks, Ms. Barton, very well said! It's time to make this COAH process reasonable. The intent is laudable, but the implementation can be nightmarish, as it will be if Hekemian is allowed to proceed as planned. And it is time for ALL of our local leaders to acknowledge that. Martin Wolff
miriam pickett November 19, 2012 at 03:04 PM
Lori, once again you have explained the current situation in a direct and easily understood explanation of the current situation. Our governor doesn't like COAH. Nobody but developers like COAH. Hopefully, the cort will rule in favor of municipalities.
AML November 19, 2012 at 03:27 PM
My sentiments exactly! Thanks Lori for your eloquent and truthful post! I am sure that it resonates with the majority of NM residents! From an earlier post I wrote: The true reason for affordable housing units has been buried by the mud on the shovel of the developers greed! It is used as a tool, an excuse, for developers to have their proposed developments built. Does one really believe that the developers are truly sincere and want to help those less fortunate than they? As Bryan Hekemian stated (I'm sorry, I meant to say whined) earlier this year at a Board meeting in Wyckoff, his family empire was losing millions of dollars for 16 affordable housing units and would not recoup that money for 30 years! He continued to whine that "It was his cross to bear." The idea of equating 16 units of affordable housing to mockery, suffering, and death is abominable! Now, does that sound like he is a benevolent and generous man (developer) concerned for the poor? I would say that it sounds as if he is concerned about his very own pockets. So much for the true spirit of affordable housing! Affordable housing is worn as a Halloween costume by the developers; underneath the costume is the true face of the developer, $$$$$$$$. Should the judges rule in favor of maintaining affordable housing, there should be a mandatory condition for each developer who build affordable housing for his/her family to live in an affordable housing unit for a period of no less than 5 years.
Ulises November 19, 2012 at 07:20 PM
Thank you Lori, well said, and yes it's time to save this little open space. I hope we prevail and I hope our M&C doesn't get another chance to rezone this property to commercial as the Mayor and certain Council members want. SOD!

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