Long day’s journey into night: Angry crowd jousts with Morris Township officials over affordable housing at two-day meeting

STANDING ROOM ONLY: Residents pack Morris Township Committee meeting to question affordable housing plans, May 16, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
STANDING ROOM ONLY: Residents pack Morris Township Committee meeting to question affordable housing plans, May 16, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Rolling out a municipal budget with a modest tax decrease usually brings kudos for local officials.

But it was just a footnote to a wild and woolly marathon that stretched from Wednesday to Thursday in Morris Township, where dozens of angry residents hooted, hissed and vowed to vote out Township Committee members come Election Day.

Morris Township resident Peter Broeman sounds off at Committee meeting, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita
Morris Township resident Peter Broeman sounds off at Committee meeting, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita

“I’ve lived here 35 years. You have a responsibility to us as residents, and you’re breaking it!” railed Peter Broeman, a lawyer.

Residents were incensed that they only received a few days’ notice about the meeting, at which the Committee advanced zoning ordinances intended to meet a June 15 court deadline for adhering to an affordable housing settlement.

During a six-hour session, elected officials were accused of acting secretively on matters residents fear could harm property values and quality of life by bringing high-density development to their backyards.

People from the Liberty Greens townhouses off Punch Bowl Road and from Mt. Kemble Avenue each declared they felt like “second-class citizens.”

After a vigorous back-and-forth with the audience—which overflowed from the 140-seat municipal chamber into a hallway—the Committee agreed to continue deliberations on rezoning 27 acres near Liberty Greens at a special meeting, on May 24 at 6 pm.

Liberty Greens residents had demanded more time to digest Township affordable housing plans that are so complicated, officials had difficulty explaining them under repeated questioning.

The residents may hire a lawyer to help propose changes to the ordinance, to ensure future affordable housing, garbage dumpsters and athletic facilities are situated farther from their homes.

WARNS OF AFFORDABLE 'ARMAGEDDON' : Morris Township Mayor Peter Mancuso listens to irate residents, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita.
WARNS OF AFFORDABLE ‘ARMAGEDDON’ : Morris Township Mayor Peter Mancuso listens to irate residents, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita.

Townhouse owners deserve the same peace and quiet as people with single-family homes, said Broeman, voicing concerns that “we can have a basketball court for a lot of low-income people learning to get into the NBA” abutting back porches.

“I’m for affordable housing,” added Liberty Greens resident Marilyn Powell, “but not to look out my window into their window.”

To give Committee members a better feel for the area they are re-zoning, Environmental Commission Chairperson Sue Young offered to give them a walking tour of the wooded parcel, owned by the Sisters of Charity.

At this point it was around 11 pm. Most of the crowd went home, thinking the meeting was adjourned.

But the night was young.

’ARMAGEDDON VERY WELL COULD BE IN STORE’

The Committee plowed ahead until 1 am on Thursday, eventually voting 3-2 to approve another controversial plan.

Morris Township resident Jayme Harvey asks, unsuccessfully, for more time for neighbors to review the Mt. Kemble redevelopment plan, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita
Morris Township resident Jayme Harvey asks, unsuccessfully, for more time for neighbors to review the Mt. Kemble redevelopment plan, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita

This one allows a maximum of 115 apartments and townhouses, including 23 affordable rentals, at the site of the Mt. Kemble Rehabilitation Institution, on the border of Morristown near Fort Nonsense.

A handful of remaining residents pleaded for an adjournment, like the one granted to the Liberty Greens people.

“I get more notices about fireworks at Spring Brook [Country Club] than I ever got for this,” said Jayme Harvey, who lives near the Mt. Kemble site.

Resident Rick Bourland told the Committee: “I observed tonight that you do a lot of good work. But not everything is above-board.”

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty urges Morris Township Committee to gather more information before approving Mt. Kemble redevelopment, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty urges Morris Township Committee to gather more information before approving Mt. Kemble redevelopment, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty chimed in, too, suggesting the Committee delay its Mt. Kemble vote until it knows the full scope of the project.

Would Toll Brothers, the prospective developers, need to build more units on the Morristown side of the property to make the project economically viable? 

Morristown officials think 115 units are reasonable for the entire site — but anything more is too dense, he said, echoing concerns he raised earlier this month.

Committee members said they didn’t know the answer.

“Then you shouldn’t be voting on this until you have all the information,” said Dougherty.

While sympathizing with residents’ “thought processes,” Mayor Peter Mancuso said he feared delays would jeopardize the Township’s December settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center.

“Armageddon very well could be in store for the Township” if that happens,  resulting in far more affordable housing being imposed on the municipality, Mancuso said.

IN THE HOT SEAT: Morris Township Planner Paul Phillips fields affordable housing questions from residents, MAY 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita
IN THE HOT SEAT: Morris Township Planner Paul Phillips fields affordable housing questions from residents, MAY 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita

Struggling to stay cool under relentless public grilling, Township Planner Paul Phillips explained that the Fair Share Housing Center sought to mandate 1,100 units as the Township’s affordable housing “fair share.” 

Citing a Byzantine series of formulas, calculations and credits, Phillips said the Township negotiated its obligation down to 184 affordable units through 2025.

Major changes at the 11th hour could “blow up” the agreement, putting the Township back on the hook for many more units, Phillips cautioned.

Morris Township Committee Members John Arvanites and Cathy Wilson voted to give residents more time, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita
Morris Township Committee Members John Arvanites and Cathy Wilson voted to give residents more time, May 16, 2018. Photo by Sarah Yamashita

Mancuso and Township Attorney John Mills entertained the possibility of carrying the matter, but the effort foundered when planning consultant John Barree said he would be vacationing through Memorial Day.

Committee Democrats Cathy Wilson and John Arvanites supported an adjournment, but Mancuso and fellow Republicans Bruce Sisler and Matheu Nunn, participating by telephone, voted to adopt the Mt. Kemble redevelopment ordinance without elaboration.

“This has been rammed through in 12 days,” Wilson said. “I do hope we learn a lesson and change our ways…We need to look at the processes we use to communicate with the public.”

P.S. The Committee unanimously adopted a $35.5 million budget. It brings a $43 reduction in municipal taxes for someone with a home assessed at the Township average of $560,000, said Administrator Tim Quinn.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Sadly the township was left in a terrible situation after the new jersey supreme court decision. I sympathize with all those affected and understand that there is no great place in the township for these developments. I hope people can respect the work of dedicated public servants, work for compromise and hold those accountable who seek to politicize this to their advantage. Also note that our taxes are lower next year and our city services are superb.

  2. Contrary to the impression given by this report, the vast majority of speakers from Liberty Greens, including me, did not object in any way to affordable housing. Rather, we expressed our concerns about the lack of timely notification to nearby residents, environmental issues such as possible wetlands, traffic and safety issues on Punch Bowl Road, possible effects on the school budget, and others.
    The impression one might take away from this article is that we are NIMBY people only concerned about our property values and legal action. Nothing could be further from the truth. More balanced and less inflammatory reporting would be appreciated.

  3. Mr. Smith, we were also sued by a developer.

    Ms. Lochier, I am not sure what you are referring to with dog-whistle politics; the comments about “NBA players” and “not in my backyard” did not come from anyone on the Committee.

    In general, nothing about this was rammed through “in 12 days.” The Committee approved the settlement — a settlement that included both of these developments — months ago. Indeed, Ms. Wilson expressed her support of the projects in a May 14 article on this website.

    The Committee fought against a developer and Fair Share housing to obtain a reasonable affordable housing number. The alternative is to allow a judge tell us how many units we need–and Fair Share housing was looking for over 1000 units.

  4. I’m all for development as long as it’s done in a way that provides quality workmanship and proper planning. Toll brothers is a company that will provide what’s needed. Town planners and professionals, as long as they are listened to, can assure a project is successful. Public input as long as it’s not politically driven is a must. To often the truth lies behind closed doors. Why Morristown would object to the toll brothers development seems to fall into the category of political grandstanding, this is dishonest to the public. Development is occurring in and around Morristown yet this project has been singled out. When politicians with no formal education think they know more than the professionals, question their motives. One only needs to look at the building recently built at 11 De Hart erected on a postage stamp site in the business district with materials that will not stop sound infiltration from a busy area.there is more to proper development than just the bottom line.

  5. I rented for a year in a Toll Brothers apt complex (Princeton Mews) in Princeton with the same low income housing requirement. I had no idea when I signed on, but sort of started to figure it out – and it was fine. Toll Brothers gets a big tax break by making a percentage of apts available to low income applicants, and it behooves them to do a good job vetting the applicants. The local cops told me this. The residents whom I knew and figured out were low income were hard working single moms with high performing kids, or recent immigrant couples who were professionals back in their countries, in school to get credentials so they could work in US, and had kids. People in the complex greeted each other, made eye contact, and were well spoken. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Toll Brothers is a public company, has this reputation for being on the higher end of rental units, has built a gazillion complexes so it makes sense that they have a careful vetting process of the low income housing applicants to make sure that they blend in with those who aren’t. Hope this helps.

  6. Townhouse owners deserve the same peace and quiet as people with single-family homes, said Broeman, voicing concerns that “we can have a basketball court for low-income people ready to get into the NBA” abutting back porches.

    I take offense to the comment what is he trying to say?

  7. The Township does it again!

    After Louise Johnson’s comment about the “racial area” in last year’s Township Committee candidate forum, you would have thought the Township Committee and residents had learned their lesson about dog whistle politics. Obviously, not the case.

    I’m definitely in sympathy with residents re poor communications from the Committee about this development proposal. They deserve better treatment from their local government, and I hope they’ll remember this on Election Day, November 6th.

    In spite of my sympathy for this, I am appalled by the comments recorded here by residents who display a NIMBY attitude and use racially-loaded code words to express themselves. It makes me start to doubt their real motives.

  8. The same thing is happening in Moorestown (near Cherry Hill). We have the added gift of being sued by a developer. This is because Moorestown agreed to a settlement with Fair Share Housing that included a provision the developer sue some 70 people to have deed restrictions removed. The restrictions from 1945 say one home per half acre but Fair Share Housing wants a 4-story, 75 unit building right next to the single houses. Moorestown is not disseminating false information to try to confuse people hoping most people will default on the lawsuit.

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