Union County Superior Court Judge Frederic Kessler is deliberating on the fairness of a settlement of a three-year-old lawsuit between Westfield and the developer of a proposed 24-unit townhouse project, including four affordable housing units.
While the two sides have agreed to settle the suit with a change in ordinance that could facilitate the construction of the development, objections have been raised by several of the sites neighbors. It’s not the inclusion of affordable housing that’s of concern, they say, but rather the increased density proposed in the plan and hilltop location of a narrow piece of land that for decades has only been home to one single-family dwelling.
Sunnyside Senior Housing of Westfield sued the town in 2009 under the Mount Laurel doctrine, a 1975 judicial ruling that states that municipalities must use their zoning regulations to provide a reasonable opportunity for the construction of affordable housing. Called a builder’s remedy suit, Sunnyside effectively challenged for the right to build 24 units by promising to include four affordable, rent-only units.
In the Elizabeth courtroom Monday, attorneys for the defendant and plaintiff were joined by approximately 20 residents, many of them from Nomahegan Court in neighboring Cranford, there to announce their objection to the plan. Though Kessler reminded the assembled crowd that he could only rule on the fairness of the development as it pertained to affordable housing, and not on local zoning or planning issues, several residents took the opportunity to use the public forum to announce there displeasure with the plan.
Kessler is not likely to make a ruling until Tuesday at the earliest.
Cranford resident Gary Miller said he and his neighbors don’t have issue with the affordable housing, but the fact that it’s being justified with the proposed construction of an additional 20 units on top of the hill that borders his backyard. If the plan was simple to build four affordable housing units, he and his neighbors would have little reason to object, he said.
Instead, what the Sunnyside development represents is a towering structure that blocks wind and sun and a view that has been forever unobstructed. Like several of his Nomahegen neighbors, Miller said he had concerns about his privacy after learning about the planned development.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Put something there, but not the Great Wall of Westfield.”
The proposed development would sit on a 1.5-acre parcel of land that’s 95 wide and 700 feet long. The three-story townhouses would include a ground-level garage as well as a first and second floor. Because the parcel is located on top of a hill that borders Cranford, the proposed development could be as tall as a six-story building for its neighbors.
And, despite the name of the developer, the units would not be age restricted.
At a May council meeting in which the new affordable housing ordinances were approved pending the court's decision, Westfield Councilman James Foerst directed angry residents to register their complaints with Kessler, despite the fact that Kessler is unable to take most of them into consideration.
He also said Westfield worked long and hard to settle the suit, noting that original plans called for the construction of 60 units.
Philip Caton, a practicing architect and principal with Clarke, Haddon, Hintz, recommended the development in a report analyzing the fairness of Sunnyside’s affordable housing plan. Not only does the development help cut into Westfield’s affordable housing requirements, but it also shows that the town is working in good faith to satisfy those requirements, protecting it from potential future lawsuits.
Situated at 206 Springfield next to residential developments on several sides and a senior assisted living facility on another, Caton said he believed the property would be a suitable location for a transitional density between the two. The proposed townhouse development, however, would have a higher rate of residents per acre than the senior facility, which sits on six acres of land.
One New Nomahegen resident said he never would have purchased his home this past February if when he had seen the home he had seen a towering development behind it. Not only will the development affect sight lines and lower the value of his home, he said, but it has the potential to destroy the neighborhood that abuts it.
The issue isn’t the affordable housing, he said, but the fact that’s being attached to a development that’s too big for the land it sits on.
“At the end of the day everyone knows that the developer is here to put more coin in his pocket,” he said.