It's going to take more than a legal appeal by the Cranford Township Committee to prevent 360 residential units from being built on Birchwood Avenue. The entire township must come together in opposition, officials said during a special meeting Tuesday night.
"I've always been a firm believer in citizen action," Mayor Dan Aschenbach told a crowd of about 30 people who gathered in town hall Tuesday night, hoping for some answers, or at least a plan of action explaining what the governing body plans to do to squelch the developer's plan for the site.
The original purpose of the special meeting was to allow the Township Committee to vote on the second reading of an ordinance to officially change the township's current sewer billing system to user-based fees, rather than having the fees determined by property values. The measure, which was approved at the special meeting, establishes and allows for the collection of those fees. But the majority of the residents who showed up for the meeting were there to discuss the S. Hekemian Group's plan to construct 360 residential units at the quiet corner of 215 Birchwood Ave., a street that's prone to flooding. Also mentioned was the overdevelopment of property at 555 South Ave. East, where the Lehigh Acquisition Corp. plans to build a three-story housing complex that includes163 housing units at the five-acre site, with 24 low-to-moderate income dwellings.
Last week, a judge ruled that the developer could build 360 units on Birchwood Avenue. The original proposal called for the construction of 419 residential units on a 15.8-acre lot in Cranford’s 0-1 Low Density Office Building Zone. The property is surrounded by single-family residential zones. Officials plan to appeal the decision, and a letter stating their intention was drafted before Tuesday's meeting.
"It's not reasonable to build this many units," the mayor said, adding that the developer "still hasn't explained how they'll deal with flooding."
The meeting was supposed to be held in the Township Committee's smaller conference room but was later moved to council chambers as a large group of residents began to assemble in the hallway. Initially, officials told citizens that since the matter involved litigation, there was very little that could be discussed. But those who showed up wanted to hear more, which led to a discussion outside the meeting room, even before the official session was called to order.
"This is the real world for these people. This is a big deal," attorney Frank Capece, a Cranford resident, said when the meeting began.
When residents began asking questions about the lawsuit during a public comment portion of the session, Deputy Mayor Kevin Campbell explained that the trial "was held before a judge. There was no jury."
Some residents, including Craig Woodruff, asked officials for a timeline, wanting to know when they could discuss more about the litigation and what the next steps in the process would be. Acting Township Attorney Diane Dabulas, who sat in for Township Attorney Dan McCarthy on Tuesday, said a transcription of the judge's decision, followed by an official order must be released and both parties involved in the suit must agree on the order. Commissioner Mark Dugan said it could be September before the order is released and the governing body can move forward.
"To me, this is a poster child for why people are afraid of affordable housing," resident Rita Labruto said.
The S. Hekemian Group of Paramus bought the property in October 2008 and proposed 356 market rate units and 63 units of low- and moderate-income housing. It then filed a suit in New Jersey Superior Court claiming that Cranford is in violation of its constitutional duty to create sufficient opportunity for the construction of low- and moderate-income housing. Peter Hekemian, the developer, did not immediately return a call for comment early Wednesday.
More than a year ago, a special master was appointed to study the case and present findings to the judge. The special master, Elizabeth McKenzie, released a report stating that the project should go forward, indicating that she did not give much weight to residents' concerns about traffic and density, given the township's constitutional obligation to provide affordable housing to its residents.
During a special Town Hall meeting early last month that allowed residents to voice their concerns on the "overdevelopment" of the property, Township Attorney Dan McCarthy recounted the Mount Laurel decisions, which state that every community in New Jersey has a constitutional obligation to allow for the building of affordable housing. The Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, was created to prevent developers from building market-rate housing with only a handful of units used for affordable housing. Under COAH, projects that served people with disabilities and low-income seniors did not count as affordable housing.
The mayor stressed the fact that all five township commissioners are opposed to the development of the Birchwood Avenue property. He said that although the town plans to appeal the judge's decision, residents also need to speak out on the issue, by writing letters to the governor and local legislators and keeping the issue in the forefront.
"We do need to stay on the same page, " Aschenbach said. The mayor also refused to sign the settlement agreement for the 555 South Ave. East case.
In two weeks, Aschenbach said, officials will be announcing plans for a "community action planning meeting."
"This is not the end of the story," he said.