It’s only the beginning. And it's not the beginning of the end, either.
While a couple hundred residents mobilized and poised themselves for a fight at the Middletown Planning Board meeting last night — to stave off 324 new units of housing on the 62-acre site of the former Avaya offices in the Lincroft section of the township — officials have made it clear that one meeting does not mark the end of the issue. In fact, they say, it could drag on for years.
At the very least, Middletown Mayor Tony Fiore said, any potential development laden with as much controversy as this one is more likely to linger in approval limbo, even though the plan conforms with current zoning parameters and no variances are being sought.
It’s all about a familiar development debate. Residents don’t want the increased density, dubbing it a strain on infrastructure, traffic, schools, quality of life and neighborhood “character.”
“The style of homes being built, three story townhouses in clusters of four, six and eight units, and four 18 unit apartment buildings, is not in keeping with the style of the majority of the homes in Lincroft, which are single family homes on large lots, of .5 to 5 acres in size,” a statement issued by the Lincroft Village Green Association (LVGA), the grassroots group spearheading the fight, said. “The density and configuration of the proposed Four Ponds (Center Associates) development are more reminiscent of inner city row houses than existing construction in Lincroft. Therefore, this development would have a very negative impact on property values in the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Of the 324 dwellings, 68 are slated to be two- and three-bedroom affordable apartments intermingled with the four 18-unit apartment buildings, an element of the development which the LGVA has argued is particularly out of nieighborhood character.
Officials say their hands are tied. They must meet state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) mandates to fulfill state-projected housing needs. This development would accomplish that.
They don’t like the idea of any more development density anywhere either, Mayor Tony Fiore said. However, it’s a matter of reluctantly embracing the lesser of two COAH requirement evils.
“We were forced in 2009, with the change in the new COAH rules, to create housing plans according to an affordable housing number went up dramatically,” the mayor said. “We filed a housing plan to accommodate the COAH parameters of which the Avaya (leased) property was part. The property is still zoned commercial, but would allow housing under these obligations.”
There were other sites throughout the township also identified as plausible for integration in the affordable housing plan. Bamm Hollow Country Club (a quarter of a mile down the road from the Avaya site) objected to the township’s filing which excluded its property.
If Bamm Hollow, a much larger, 300-acre plat of land replete with a 37-hole golf course, had been included as a potential site that could fit the mandated affordable homes, “they would build about 1,200 units, of which a couple hundred would be affordable units,” Fiore said. “At the time of this housing pan, they were pressing the township to include them as one of the approved sites for the COAH housing. The township didn’t and they sued. We have been fighting it ever since.”
The problem the township has had with accommodating the COAH mandate, Fiore said, is that the more units that are built in any development, the higher the affordable housing quota goes. The incentive for developers is to shoot for higher density so that the profit on market-rate units is higher.
The LVGA thinks the township can and should just rezone the Avaya tract so it does not allow the planned housing, but rather something more in conformance with the neighborhood, such as fewer single family homes.
They also say, in their released statement, that “when this property was rezoned in 2010 to accommodate COAH obligations, the then sitting Township Committee went on record to say they would rezone the site back to either commercial or residential single family homes at the earliest opportunity.”
Rezoning the Middletown-Lincroft Road plat to disallow the residential component and affordable housing is not an option, Fiore and other officials have reiterated. A move like that, Fiore said, would only open up the township for more lawsuits and trouble with Bamm Hollow, which would end up being expensive and defeatist for the township.
In fact, Fiore said, if the township did what the LGVA wanted it to do and rezoned the property formerly leased by Avaya, to disallow the residential component that accommodates the COAH requirement, it would only open itself up for the distinct possibility of ending up with the higher density Bamm Hollow potential project in its lap instead.
Four Ponds, the Avaya site developer, is being represented by attorney Rick Brodsky, of Ansell, Grimm and Aaron, Ocean Township. Brodsky is a former township committeeman.
Considering that experience, Fiore said Brodsky should know and understand what the township is dealing with concerning COAH.
It’s not a matter of being exclusionary with housing, as the township and Lincroft Village Green Association have been accused of, Fiore said.
“We’ve never been exclusionary,” he said. “We have a large number of existing affordable housing units in the township. It just doesn’t satisfy COAH’s archaic rules that just make us build more. If the courts would grant us relief of these obligations or if the legislature would follow the governor’s lead in abolishing COAH rules and saddling the township with building all these units, we would do everything in our power to block that and every COAH development in Middletown. The state put a gun to Middletown.”
See Lincroft Village Green Association Sounds off on Avaya Site Development opinion piece for the group's detailed take on the issue.