Old Bridge officials disagree on affordable housing obligations

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BY KATHY CHANG
Staff Writer

OLD BRIDGE — Council members’ opinions differed on a decision to grant approval to Old Bridge’s updated affordable housing plan.

The Township Council discussed Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Arnold L. Natali Jr.’s decision to grant final approval of the township’s 1999 to 2025 Housing Element and Fair Share Housing Plan.

As a condition to final approval by the Superior Court, the court requested minor changes be made to the township’s Land Development ordinance, Township Attorney Mark M. Roselli said.

The court made its decision on April 3. Later that night, the township attorney requested that the council introduce the amended Land Development ordinance at a council meeting.

The minor changes, Roselli said, included amendments to the development fee section of the ordinance, adding language that the plan was approved by the court.

“The current development fee ordinance says it was approved by COAH [Council on Affordable Housing],” he said.

Roselli said the judge also granted preliminary repose, which means developers cannot file a builder’s remedy lawsuit against the township.

The attorney said he knows there has been a lot of concerns about the township’s Fair Share Housing obligation in the plan. He said Old Bridge has a constitutional responsibility to provide affordable housing, which they decreased under terms of a settlement from 10,870 housing units to 3,109 units.

The township’s obligation of 3,109 units was worked out through different avenues including providing township-sponsored housing for disabled veterans.

The developers that would primarily build include AvalonBay, Alfieri, Fair Share Housing Center, Traditional Developers, Foxborough Associates and the Brunetti Organization.

“We believe this is very good plan,” Roselli said. “The judge even commented that the town recognized its responsibility and is trying to meets its requirements of its residents.”

Roselli said the adoption of the amended ordinance is a condition to a final approval by the Superior Court.

“The danger is if we ultimately don’t have final approval we are susceptible to challenges,” he said. “I think at the end of the day if this ordinance isn’t finally adopted then it will allow interveners of fair share housing to go before the court and indicate the town is possibly not acting in good faith and then at that point we lose control.”

Despite Roselli’s request, the council voted 4 to 3 against introducing the amended Land Development ordinance.

Councilwoman-at-Large Anita Greenberg-Belli said she voted against the introduction because she has concerns with the COAH process.

“It is unfortunate the COAH situation has not been resolved from the state down,” she said. “We are expanding the amount of units in town so much and not taking in consideration the roads, infrastructure and the costs that it would take for police, fire and first aid.”

Councilwoman-at-Large Debbie Walker said she feels the same way as Greenberg-Belli. She said she is upset with the amended zoning in the Housing Element and Fair Share Housing Plan for the Alfieri property.

“It was supposed to be a hotel conference center with just single family homes. … That shouldn’t have been changed,” she said. “I am very much against that. I just think that COAH is very detrimental to all of our communities in the state.”

Ward 2 Councilwoman Mary Sohor said it is her opinion that the township should have tried to fight against any obligation.

“I really don’t like the idea of that many apartments coming in town,” she said.

Council Vice President Alan Rosencranz said while he respects his fellow council member’s opinions, he said he did not think they had much of a choice on the COAH obligation.

“We didn’t have any room to negotiate on any additional reductions in the amount of housing and apartments and units,” he said. “If we had gone to court, we would have had incurred legal expense and no guarantee of the 3,000 [unit] negotiated settlement. … This was the best of a bad situation, in my opinion, that we settled.”

Council President Brian Cahill said he thinks the public needs to understand that nothing has been approved for development as part of the township’s Housing Element and Fair Share Housing Plan.

In relation to the amendments to the township Land Development ordinance, the Township Council voted to approve the amendment to the contract with DiFrancesco, Bateman, Coley, Yospin and Davis, Esq., increasing their contract for Affordable Housing/COAH Litigation Special Counsel from $55,000 to $57,056.40.

Roselli said the original contract was for $55,000, which was a ballpark figure that is required to be included by law.

“This relates to a contract from last year 2016,” he said.

Roselli said he understands that many council members are opposed to the increase. He said the overall cost was mitigated through his time working on the township’s Housing Element and Fair Share Housing Plan.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.