By Chris Rotolo |
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – An affordable housing dispute in Atlantic Highlands has left some residents feeling frustrated and helpless.
Following advice by the mayor and town council the previous evening, about 50 borough residents packed the benches and lined the doorway of the municipal court Thursday, April 12 for a monthly Planning Board meeting.
The residents came to voice their complaints and ask questions about affordable housing plans for a vacant piece of land at 21 Leonard Ave. In 2006, the property was zoned for a two-family affordable housing dwelling and an ordinance was passed.
But recently, there have been rumors of a four-unit facility being planned for the site.
Residents expected the issue to be discussed by the board at the meeting. But once they were told the item had been removed from the agenda, some of them became irritated. Frustrations boiled over when board members had few answers for them.
“People want transparency. We are frustrated,” said Shelly Kennedy of East Highland Avenue. “We feel this process is needlessly bureaucratic and convoluted. People on a planning board have a duty to help serve this community and we hear things like ‘we don’t know anything.’ What are you doing? We were told to be at this meeting. This is where we would get all of our questions answered.”
One of those questions dealt with a recent legal notice published on March 26 about a pending affordable housing settlement that had been brought to state Superior Court by the Borough of Atlantic Highlands. The settlement noted a Fair Share Housing plan that listed a four-unit project at 21 Leonard Ave. headed by Habitat for Humanity.
Borough Administrator Adam Hubeny confirmed that, though Habitat for Humanity – a group that recently completed an affordable housing project on Memorial Parkway in Atlantic Highlands – has expressed interest in the property, it was Monmouth Housing Alliance CEO Donna Blaze who presented a proposal for a four-unit building to Mayor Rhonda Le Grice and the town council in a workshop meeting on March 14.
Hubeny also confirmed that the proposal was recently pulled by Blaze and any movement on the property’s development has been shelved until the fall. With the process stalled, the planning board was forced to remove 21 Leonard Ave. from Thursday’s agenda, as it could not review an application that had not been submitted.
It’s an action Hubeny claimed responsibility for, stating, “I don’t often get involved with the Planning Board, so the agenda is usually out of sight, out of mind for me. I caught it on Friday (April 6). It was a total miscommunication on my part. We’re not doing anything with 21 Leonard Ave. until the fall and I should have had it removed from the April agenda when we found out the proposal had been pulled.”
Despite the inaction, what proved most unsettling for the concerned citizens was their lack of a voice in the matter, as Planning Board attorney Michael Steib established that, should a settlement between the borough and affordable housing developers be reached, the plan would go before a superior court judge for a hearing on its constitutionality.
According to Borough Resolution 025-2018 – which was filed on March 16 – the hearing will be held on May 8, with public comments and objections being accepted in Freehold until April 27. If deemed constitutional, the ruling would take precedence over the borough’s 2006 zoning ordinance, instantly transforming the lot from a two-family property to a four-unit zone.
“If a judge rules that the plan is constitutional then the ruling is enforceable,” Steib said. “As part of that resolution and that settlement, the ordinance would have to be amended.”
Luanne Trpisovsky owns a home at 25 Leonard Ave. and purchased the property in October 2009. Like many of her Leonard Avenue neighbors in attendance at the April 12 meeting, Trpisovsky purchased her home after that 2006 zoning ordinance and expressed her dismay with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
“This is a very serious matter because one minute we were told nothing but a duplex would be there and in the next breath we have no say on a zoning change because the four-dwelling proposal is included in a court proceeding,” Trpisovsky said. “How is that possible? As a board and a town council you have the power to take those units and put them someplace else…We’ll take two (on Leonard Avenue) and someone else can take two. That’s a real fair share housing plan.”
Like Trpisovsky, residents of Leonard Avenue – a narrow, one-way road – say they are unopposed to the addition of affordable housing. They say their concern is with the number of new residents living there and what the influx of vehicles would mean for safety, as more congestion means less room for emergency response.
Though residents feel they haven’t been heard, and even deceived, Hubeny said that’s quite the opposite. “We have heard residents loud and clear,” he said. “They are not against affordable housing. But they do have parking and flooding concerns. They want a better-looking structure with no parking lots or dumpsters. They’d rather have ownership than a rental property. And we’re working on all of that. But 21 Leonard Ave. has always been in the borough’s affordable housing plans.”
The Planning Board was unwilling to commit to a study of traffic patterns and congestion on Leonard Avenue due to a lack of jurisdiction in the matter.
“It’s not within our scope until someone submits an application to us,” board member Edward Cetron said. “We know a lot about the issues that are concerning you. And if an application comes to us, we would then have jurisdiction and can go through those concerns with a fine-tooth comb.”
Though that notion was well-received, Cetron also relayed that if the developer meets all the structural and zoning obligations of the property and no variances are needed, then the matter will not come before the Planning Board and work could begin at their earliest convenience.
Following the 2014 defunct status of New Jersey’s Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), municipalities around the Garden State seeking protection from builder’s remedy lawsuits – court-imposed remedies empowering developers to utilize a municipality’s mandatory affordable housing zoning techniques – filed declaratory judgement actions, or lawsuits with the superior court.
According to Steib over 320 municipalities did so, including Atlantic Highlands, which then received immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits. Steib also said the court process has taken several years to conclude and did so just four weeks ago.
As a result the borough now understands that it has a 42-unit gap that needs to be met and, according to Fair Share Housing Center spokesperson Anthony Campisi, the plan to resolve that gap includes the following:
10 units at the Springpoint Living Project (202 First Ave.)
5 units at 35 First Ave.
4 units at 158 First Ave.
4 units at 21 Leonard Ave. (Habitat for Humanity project)
3 units between 44-48 First Ave.
2 units at Memorial Parkway (completed Habitat for Humanity project)
2 units between 60-64 First Ave.
1 unit at 95 First Ave.
11 rental bonus credits
Residents have until Friday, April 27 to submit objections and complaints about this plan to the superior court of New Jersey located at 71 Monument Park, 2nd Floor, Freehold, with copies of all included documents being forwarded to Erik C. Nolan (firstname.lastname@example.org); Francis J. Banisch (email@example.com); Adam Gordon (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Adam Hubeny (email@example.com).
This article was first published in the April 19-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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