By JOHN T. WARD
Fair Haven residents packed a hearing on zoning changes written to show “the right gestures” toward providing 370 new homes for low- and moderate-income earners Tuesday night.
But the planning board board’s determination to immediately vote on a complex proposal it had just unveiled irked many who sat through the three-hour session as much as the substance of the changes.
“Clearly, the people of town have not asked for this,” said Chris Hempstead, of Willow Street, who requested that a decision be delayed so it could be discussed by residents. “It sounds insanely disruptive to the nature of the borough.”
At issue was the latest step in tussles over a series of so-called Mount Laurel New Jersey Supreme Court rulings dating back to 1975. The rulings enshrined a constitutional obligation on municipalities “to provide a realistic opportunity for the construction of low- and moderate-income housing,” in the words of a report prepared for the board by Heyer, Gruel & Associates, a Red Bank planning firm.
But how many homes each town would have to build only came into focus in 2015, when a trial in Mercer County Superior Court ended what the Fair Share Housing Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, called a “16-year bureaucratic logjam in Trenton.”
The decision in that case later yielded a complicated formula using demographic and and property data that enables towns to extrapolate their own obligations in order to avoid being sued by developers and others.
So what’s Fair Haven’s target number? Answer: 371 units, according to the Heyer report. One of those units is classified as required based on substandard housing that now exists in town, and can be satisfied by the borough through the proposed sale of land adjoining the public works yard; the rest are classified as “unmet need,” according to the report.
Here’s the full report.
The 370 figure “sounds absurd for a town this small,” planner Fred Heyer told the audience. And given the lack of developable real estate in town, “there’s no way on earth that Fair Haven will ever meet its full number,” he said.
Still, in the hopes of satisfying the Fair Share Housing Center and court, borough officials, working behind the curtain that enshrouds issues of litigation, crafted the plan introduced Tuesday night.
Its centerpiece is a new “overlay” zone atop the B-1 business zone that frames the western business district on either side of River Road between Smith Street and Laurel Avenue. The zone includes residences.
The changes would allow owners of lots 20,000 square feet in size within the 17-acre zone to build structures as tall as 38 feet as long as they included commercial uses on the ground floor and at least one affordable unit. The present zoning limits building heights to 35 feet.
“It’s a tough bullet to bite, but if you’re going to do it anywhere in town, you might as well do it in a way where it helps you get an additional bang for your buck,” Heyer said. “It essentially subsidizes the commercial development.”
A second overlay zone would apply to the five-acre property owned by the Methodist Church tucked in between the Fair Haven Fields Natural Area and borough playing fields. Senior housing for “maybe 30 units,” including six affordable units, might be built there in the event the church ever decides to develop or sell, he said.
Neither overlay would impose additional burdens on property owners or diminish their existing rights, officials said. “The future of the Methodist church is in the hands of the Methodist church,” Mayor Ben Lucarelli told a concerned church trustee.
Overall, the plan shows that “we’re making the right gestures in terms of using what we have,” Heyer said. “But I don’t believe we’re compromising too much from where we want to be.”
Mike Edwards, an attorney whose firm, Surenian Associates, was hired by borough to handle litigation, told the audience that doing nothing because the goal cannot be met would not “pass constitutional muster.”
“You don’t have to put in zoning to achieve the entire 370-unit unmet need. You just have to take reasonable efforts to permit it,” Edwards said. “We came up with reasonable measures to address a decent chunk of your unmet need.”
But several residents were displeased with the plan.
Hempstead argued that the overlay zone should perhaps be imposed on the entire town, including estates fronting on the Navesink River, out of fairness.
“Adding density to the most densely populate part of town, I would strongly and beggingly ask that you think of a different route, because it’s already too crowded,” he said.
Edwards said he had never seen a Mount Laurel case settlement that call for overlay zones on existing single-family home zones, and several board members said they would not do so.
Diane Mevorach, whose Navesink Avenue home is within the business district overlay zone and does not oppose it, addressed the haste with which the plan was handled.
“Things are happening in this town, going too quickly, not properly,” said Diane Mevorach of Navesink Avenue. “People are upset, and it’s not just about fair housing. I think the majority of people want fair housing… It’s how things are shoved down our throats very quickly and we don’t have a chance to breathe.”
“Some people think this is coming out of the blue,” Lucarelli said, but it’s been in the works for more than a year under the guidance of planners and land-use lawyers with expertise in the field. (Here’s a timeline on the development of the plan, from remarks read by Administrator Theresa Casagrande: Fair Haven affordable housing timeline 031919
Even board member David Bordelon asked for additional time, but board Chairman Todd Lehder and Lucarelli argued that a vote was necessary because the borough is scheduled to be in court on a request for immunity from lawsuits on April 12.
“We looked at a lot of what-ifs,” said Councilwoman Betsy Koch, who serves on the board and the committee that drafted the proposal. “I believe this is the fairest plan we could come up with.”
The planning board’s task was to vote on an amendment to the housing element of the Master Plan. The public will have multiple opportunities to weigh in at additional steps in the process at both the planning board and council levels, Lehder they said.
The board’s vote to adopt the amendment was unanimous, except for an abstention by Bordelon. It next goes to the council for action.
The ultimate goal, after further negotiations with the Fair Share Housing Center and compliance hearings before a Superior Court judge, is a “judgment of compliance in repose” from the court that protects the borough from lawsuits “by the big, bad scary bigger’s remedy litigation” until 2025, Edwards said.
Getting to that point “could still take two years or more,” he said.