Over the past two years I have received many emails, returned many phone calls and met with many residents who share deep concerns about proposed housing developments. The majority of the time residents will ask what actions we as a governing body can take and what actions they as residents can take. I am writing this article to help everyone understand the process and the situation we are in as governing officials and taxpayers. It is my hope that this information will serve as an informative guide to the following: Why does this keep happening? What can Township offiicals do? What can I as a concerned resident do?
First, let's tackle the why. Before I jump into that I want to address a concern I see here on Patch comments and through calls and letters that I personally receive. The Township does not pursue housing developments for tax revenue or any other purpose whatsoever. The Township will pursue businesses (example Sloan Kettering), and other lease agreements (Trinity Hall is a perfect example) to help generate revenue. The township does not look to develop land for residential purposes to offset taxes. That would be a very foolish idea as infrastructure costs to schools, police and roads for example would well outweigh any economic benefit received. Under the NJ State land use law, any property owner has the right to develop their property so long as it's in conformance with zoning and other land use regulations. If the property is not in full conformance they have the right to a hearing before the planning board to seek major (or minor) site plan approval and any variances and waivers that they may request. It is the Planning Board who shall determine the outcome of the request. While that may sound simple enough, it's not always so simple. I'll dive into that further below.
In 2009 former Governor Corzine and his administration changed the rules that Townships must comply with under the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH). Under these new rules enforced by the Governor and his legislature at the time, Middletown was forced to develop a plan for hundreds of additional housing units located throughout the township. Failure to comply with this order would result in developer lawsuits that would automatically allow developments to proceed without any Planning Board and Township oversight with respect to size, scope or location. The Township has been protesting this and taking legal action ever since. In fact, the governing body has allocated many resources towards fighting these mandates before the State Supreme Court. A hearing is ongoing on the subject as we speak. This is the "why" part. The law change in 2009 is the catalyst behind these developments.
So what can the Township and the governing body do? Under the land use law, the governing body cannot comment or prejudice any pending application before the Planning or Zoning Board. Therefore asking the Mayor or Township Committee to stand up against a specific proposed development is something we can't do no matter how much we may want to. What we can do is continue our fight against the rules of COAH. I have stated many times in the past in the press and public comment that I personally oppose any and all developments forced upon our municipality under the guise of COAH. The Township governing body will continue to push our fight that Middletown has a wealth of market rate affordable housing and does not need to have these additional state mandates placed upon us. While I am pleased that our argument is being heard before the State Supreme Court, I am not very optimistic that those who forced these rules will act to overturn them.
What can you do? You can attend meetings of the Planning Board and comment in the public portion to voice your concerns over the proposed development. You can pressure lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate to hold hearings for Governor Christie's judicial appointments to the State Supreme Court. Without a change in the judges who have in my view gone well beyond their scope to advocate for these arcane rules of COAH, nothing will ever change. The Governor has tried on many occasions to appoint new justices as he has the power to do and has been constantly rebuffed by Steve Sweeney and Sheila Oliver who represent the leadership of the Democratic state Senate and Assembly. These two leaders can also pass legislation to stop these rules. However, their blatent refusal is a clear indication that they favor over-development and care more about developers than surburban taxpayers.
I realize that these applications bring out a wide variety of emotions and concerns. I certainly share your frustration every time this comes up as I stated before. I hope this serves as a guide to why we are here and how it can change. More importantly, I hope it serves as a guide as to what residents can do to make their voice heard.
Tony Fiore is the mayor of Middletown Township, NJ