Judge orders one of NJ’s richest towns to put affordable housing downtown

A New Jersey judge on Wednesday ordered one of the state’s richest municipalities to move forward with a 100% affordable housing development in the heart of its upscale downtown, after years of resistance from local officials.

Superior Court Judge Cynthia Santomauro ruled that she would accept a court-appointed special master’s recommendation and order Millburn Township to proceed with a 75-unit housing development at 9 Main St. The site currently houses Millburn’s public works facilities and is located just a block away from shops, restaurants and an NJ Transit station in the community’s downtown area.

Santomauro has expressed repeated frustration that Millburn officials stalled for three years and then entirely pulled out of a 2021 agreement to build the development. She said on Wednesday that the township must once again sign off on that original agreement within 30 days, and stressed there are “not going to be changes” to it.

The judge added that if the township refuses to comply, she will consider issuing a court order adopting the agreement and would fine Millburn until the documents are signed.

“Hopefully this project will start right away,” Santomauro said, noting that she wanted the developer in the original agreement, RPM, to submit a timeline for development in the next few days. “There is really no reason to hold it up.”

New Jersey law requires every community in the state to provide opportunities for its “fair share” of affordable housing to be built. The nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center — which for years has hashed out specific obligations with towns on behalf of the court system — has said that for 40 years, Millburn didn’t develop any affordable units. In 2021, the then-members of Millburn’s Township Committee entered into the 9 Main St. development agreement with Fair Share and RPM to make progress toward the township’s commitment.

But this spring, new members of the township council said they were abandoning the agreement and would instead find other sites for the affordable units — setting off the latest dispute in court.

Affordable housing advocates hope that Santomauro’s ruling closes the book on a contentious chapter of the dispute over affordable housing in the wealthy township, where the average home sale is for more than $1 million and the median household is beyond $250,000. (Census reports don’t register higher figures).

Josh Bauers, an attorney for Fair Share Housing Center, told Gothamist outside the court on Wednesday that the organization is “happy with where things are heading.”

“It’s just clear that the judge fully expects that the delays … are going to come to an end, and that the site is going to move forward expeditiously,” he said.

In April, Millburn’s attorneys submitted to the court two alternative sites that they argued were better options for the 75 units of affordable housing. In response, Santomauro appointed Special Master Frank Banisch and tasked him with recommending the best place in town to put the housing.

Then in June, Banisch delivered his report to the court, recommending that the housing be built at 9 Main St. as originally agreed. He cited how far along the negotiating parties had come and said the downtown site presents the best opportunity for Millburn to expeditiously build the 75 units of affordable housing.

In his report, Banisch noted that while the township is currently in the process of developing some other affordable housing units also specified in the 2021 agreement, those projects and the Main Street development would still leave Millburn about 1,100 units short of the 1,300 units deemed its “fair share” under New Jersey housing law.

The plans for two alternative sites proposed by Millburn, Bauers said on Wednesday, are just “a diagram that circles the properties” — two parking lots in town — with “no description of how they’ll handle the [affordable] units.”

Millburn attorney Jarrid Kantor argued in court that the alternative sites still present the clearest path for the township to build affordable housing. He noted that the 9 Main St. location is an active public works site that contains a salt dome for the roads and a gas station that would require some time to relocate.

Yet Santomauro roundly rejected Kantor’s argument that the relocation of the public works facilities would cause hardship for the town.

She referenced a 2007 study the township commissioned, calling the public works facility a “deleterious and largely obsolete land use within the heart of Millburn’s central business district” and “detrimental to the overall health and welfare of the community.” The study was part of a formal process that the township undertook when considering redeveloping that site.

“If they didn’t do that work, it doesn’t mean the site is not good” for housing, the judge said.

In a filing last month, Kantor said the special master’s report omitted that he walked all three sites with township officials. The filing also said the special master agreed with the officials that the alternative sites would be easier to develop.

The filing included signed affidavits from two members of the township council, Frank Saccomandi and Ben Stoller, who said that when they walked the sites with Banisch, the special master, he described one of the locations as “beautiful” and “ideal for development.”

Fair Share Housing’s Josh Bauers responded in a June 8 filing that the statements by the town officials amounted to “hearsay.” He said in court on Wednesday that the officials “followed [the special master] around with a notepad” in search of a “gotcha moment” that they could use to refute his report.

Kantor, representing the township, said he was “personally insulted” by the suggestion that the councilmembers did anything wrong. Santomauro responded that she had no reason to believe that the township officials weren’t telling the truth and noted that the councilmembers didn’t do anything illegal. But she said she was “displeased” that the officials took notes and tried to use those comments against the special master.

Santomauro also didn’t appear to buy Millburn’s argument that the alternative sites would be developed more quickly than the 9 Main St. location would be, telling the town’s attorneys’ that there was “absolutely no backup” to suggest this. At one point during the hearing, Santomauro asked Millburn’s lawyer if there were “concept plans” for developing on the alternative sites, and he replied “no.”

“What’s the timeframe? I don’t have it,” Santomauro said about the alternative sites.

Still, the judge said she was “very happy to see” other sites that could accommodate affordable housing identified.

Santomauro added that Millburn has “ignored” its affordable housing obligations for “many, many, many years” and that these locations “could go a long way to satisfy” it in the future.

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