Stafford Settlement Cuts Affordable Housing Obligation in HalfFair Share Housing Center Wanted 792 Units, Accepts 360
Stafford Township will hold a fairness hearing Oct. 14 and become the first municipality in Ocean County to reach a settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center in the affordable housing case currently pending in Ocean County Superior Court.
Fair Share Housing Center is an affordable housing advocacy group that “has made it their mission in life to create as many affordable housing units as they possibly can, and created significant impediments to towns shirking their responsibilities in the affordable housing forum,” according to Jennifer Beahm, director of planning for CME Associates, the township’s engineering firm, who presented an overview of the settlement agreement that has been more than a year in the making with Township Attorney Jerry Dasti and a team of Stafford officials. Each municipality was assigned a court-appointed special master to work through the process, Beahm said.
Fair Share Housing came up with a certain obligation for every town in the state, in the form of a number of units. Stafford’s obligation was 792 units.
“We took the position that Stafford is unique; the Parkway bisects the town into areas that are in the Pinelands and areas that are regulated by CAFRA,” she said, referring to the NJ Coastal Area Facilities Review Act of the 1970s. “Just because you see land here in Stafford doesn’t mean it’s developable.”
Over time, the team was able to reduce that number to 360 units, which all agree is realistic given the developable land available, Beahm explained.
“The good news is, you have all the units you need already,” Beahm told the town council and residents. In the so-called third round, a number of projects in Stafford had already been reviewed and deemed appropriate by the NJ Department of Community Affairs: Stafford Park, Stafford Mews, some units associated with the hospital, group homes in town, and a new project proposed by Walters Group for 72 units on Route 9.
Those existing developments will provide the affordable housing that, in the court’s eyes, the town is obligated to provide, Beahm said. The balance between 360 and 792 goes into a category called “unmet need.” About 110 will go toward unmet need from the outset, given the surplus units from prior projects in Perry’s Lake, Cedar Run and Stafford Mews the town didn’t take credit for (due to capping on age-restricted units, etc.), plus the mixed-use zone on Bay Avenue, where if new development comes in with five or more residential units, the town will require 20 percent of the units to be for low- to moderate-income, as to be enacted by two ordinances coming up this month and next.
“All of that is packaged together in the settlement agreement,” she said, and both the Fair Share Center and the court master have signed off on it, so the town’s resolution of its approval would allow it to go forward.
Upon the Oct. 14 fairness hearing, Beahm said, the judge will grant a judgment of repose for the balance of the third round, which goes out to 2025.
Stafford’s settlement in this case will save taxpayers money, she added. The Supreme Court of New Jersey has decided to accept Fair Share’s appeal on the gap period. At the county level, depositions started this week to argue over the correct methodology – all of which the town is paying for, she said, from the court-appointed special master and number cruncher to the consortium asking for additional legal fees.
The settlement will stop the bleeding. Stafford will no longer have to foot the bill for other towns continuing to fight this. Affordable housing lawsuits have been going on throughout the state for the last year and a half, since the state Supreme Court’s decision in March 2015, according to Dasti.
The team looked to be as critical as possible to exclude as many pieces of property as possible, Beahm said. The tricky part was dealing with people who have “very limited understanding of the Pinelands and the limitations associated with developing in the Pines.” Luckily the court master is from Ocean County and was supportive of the town’s viewpoint.
“We have put a lot of effort into making sure you satisfy your obligation in the least impactful way to the township,” she said, by providing the units for low- to moderate-income households but not ending up with thousands of market-rate units to meet the obligation.
Mayor John Spodofora said he was proud of the hard work and the outcome. The Stafford Township Council voted unanimously to pass the resolution.