CONTROVERSIAL AVAYA HEARING TONIGHT

avaya1Residents and Middletown officials are strongly opposed to a 342-unit housing plan at the former Avaya property in Lincroft. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

Middletown’s planning board will meet Wednesday to hear a proposal that’s got neighbors up in arms and township officials grinding their teeth.

The proposed project, submitted by Four Ponds Associates, calls for the demolition of a large office building vacated by telecom giant Avaya and the construction of 342 residential units on 68  acres on Middletown-Lincroft Road.

For locals, the prospect of adding hundreds of homes to the tract is an unwelcome one, as traffic and safety top the concerns, not to mention a serious disruption to the Lincroft section’s quality of life, they say.

For township officials, the proposal represents “archaic and ridiculous” affordable housing laws imposed by the state. But until changes are made in Trenton, they’re handcuffed, they say.

“We oppose this development and every development we’ve been forced into under the guise of affordable housing regulations,” Mayor Tony Fiore said, “especially when they’re not in the best interest of Middletown. And that’s exactly what’s going on here.”

Currently, the property is zoned for office use but is able to add residential units since the town listed the property in its affordable housing plan, which was revised in 2009, Administrator Anthony Mercantante said. No variances are being sought.

A non-profit advocacy group made up of residents, the Lincroft Village Green Association, has called for the town to rezone the property back to residential single-family or commercial use.

But “We have no authority to simply rezone” the property, Fiore said. “We would be steadfast in doing that. Unfortunately, the legislature and the state assembly has given us no relief.”

Of the 342 units proposed, 68 are said in the builder’s application to satisfy the town’s affordable housing obligation, a murky mandate delivered by the state Council On Affordable Housing – which itself is in limbo, as Governor Chris Christie has recommended eliminating COAH and letting local municipalities decide how much affordable housing is necessary within their boundaries.

Fiore and the township committee contend that the town has plenty of affordable housing in town. The problem is that it’s been available since before the affordable housing rules were put in place, and COAH refuses to recognize it, Fiore said. The town is fighting that refusal in state Supreme Court, and if the court finds the town does fulfill housing requirements, Fiore said, “you’re damn right I’m going to block the development every which way we can.”

“I don’t believe that we need another 300 units anywhere in town,” he said. “We have plenty of affordable housing and plenty of market value housing. To force us to put more is absurd.”

However, the plan for the Avaya property is, in a way, a lesser evil, elected officials contend.

Since the town was required to update its affordable housing plan in 2009, Bamm Hollow Country Club sued the town, arguing that its approximate 300-acre property — and a 1,200 unit proposal — should have been included in the housing plan. Had the town not fought the suit, as it continues to, there could conceivably be four times as many units in the Lincroft area as are proposed now, Fiore said.

“So had Avaya not been in the plan, we would have opened ourselves up to 1,200 units in Bamm Hollow,” he said. “I don’t think anybody knows the impact of Bamm Hollow. It’s a terrible situation to be in.”

Four Ponds originally submitted a plan for the Avaya property last year, but it was never completed, and some residents assumed the idea had been shelved indefinitely. But in March, a revised plan was submitted to the planning office, and thus, tonight’s meeting to hear the proposal.

The planning board is unlikely to yield any decision on the proposal soon, Fiore said. Meantime, residents are able to voice their opinions at the meetings, Fiore said.

They plan to. The association distributed an email this week urging residents to turn out to the meeting voicing opposition to the proposal. It also plans to sell anti-Four Ponds t-shirts and lawn signs to raise money to hire a traffic engineer, attorney and planner to oppose the plan.

“Just because they have this COAH at their back doesn’t mean the application gets a free pass,” Fiore said. “This is going to take a very long time at the planning board.”

Meeting starts 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.