The state’s school funding formula and affordable housing are two issues where the New Jersey courts, and our elected representatives in Trenton, have failed the residents of New Jersey in general and the residents of West Windsor.
Because West Windsor is considered a wealthy “J” school district, we get the short end of the stick on every issue (all school districts in New Jersey are divided into groups: “A” being the poorest to “J” being the wealthiest). This is important because of the pending affordable housing case in Mercer County Superior Court.
Editor’s note: West Windsor is one of several towns in Mercer County that are the subject of a lawsuit by the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center claiming that the township has not provided for its fair share of state-mandated affordable housing. Judge Mary Jacobson is presiding over the trial, and she will rule on the number of additional units the township needs to provide.
In the 2009-10 school year, the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District received $11.7 million in state aid. This in spite of the fact that the funding formula devised under Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration indicated that fair aid for the WW-P School District was $21 million. For the upcoming school year 2017-18, WW-P is getting only $8 million in state aid. The taxpayers of our two towns are forced to pick up the difference.
As a councilman, I have received some advice on what West Windsor should do in the affordable housing case. The legislature, developers, lawyers and courts would like to resolve this case with minimal public scrutiny. If that happens, some important issues will never get a fair public hearing.
Here is the advice I have received and my reaction to it.
1. West Windsor must negotiate with the Fair Share Housing Center based on their number of 2,200-plus housing units as West Windsor’s affordable housing obligation.
Even after accounting for our current 1,000-plus credit for units planned for, West Windsor is left more than 1,200 units short of the FSHC number. The township would need to provide for these units between now and 2025.
Using the usual ratio of 4 to 1 for market rate units to subsidize the construction of affordable units, West Windsor will have to accommodate over 5,000 housing units within eight years. Currently there are fewer than 10,000 homes in West Windsor. Is it realistic to believe that West Windsor can absorb 5,000 new houses, apartments and condos in that short a period of time?
2. In their ruling, the court can’t consider the impact of development on schools and current taxpayers.
The developers argue that they can’t afford to build unless they are granted higher density and other zoning and infrastructure concessions by the court. Why can’t West Windsor argue that it can’t afford such a huge tax and infrastructure impact?
Why can’t the school district argue that they can’t reasonably accommodate any more kids and provide them with a “thorough and efficient education,” as the New Jersey Constitution demands? Since we have a joint school district and Plainsboro has already settled its case, the added burden on West Windsor would result in a swing of school taxes from Plainsboro to West Windsor to the tune of at least 7 percent.
This is in addition to the higher taxes resulting from new development. How can the system justify sacrificing existing taxpayers in favor of for-profit developers? Where is New Jersey’s Bernie Sanders when you really need him?
3. It’s better to settle than fight in court.
This argument itself illustrates what’s wrong with the legal system in the state and the country. The township spent over $300,000 in legal costs last year on affordable housing litigation. A court case is very expensive. If all other towns in Mercer County settle, it would cost West Windsor more than $15,000 a day to fight the case.
How can the legislature and courts allow the threat of unreasonable court costs to force a township to settle? Taxpayers are paying costs on both sides, since the Fair Share Housing Center to some extent is funded by the taxpayers. This should be unconstitutional. Since when do you have to help your opponent with legal costs?
Last year, a judge in Middlesex County imposed an unreasonable burden of affordable housing units on South Brunswick when they tried to fight the FSHC in court. What no one wants to mention is that the judge who granted the judgment retired at the end of 2016, and then appeared in the same court as the developer’s attorney on the first court day of 2017.
This seems to be as clear a case of conflict of interest as one can find. Do the legislature and courts have no shame in validating the rulings by this judge? Should that judge’s ruling be allowed set a pattern for all other towns in New Jersey?
Is it any wonder that people are losing faith in government?
4. Any settlement with the FSHC must include housing on the Howard Hughes property.
An alternate form of this advice is that Howard Hughes is going to sue West Windsor anyway, so it’s better to settle with them using the affordable housing case than risk losing in court.
The property was bought by Howard Hughes’ predecessor—a for-profit company— knowing that it was not zoned for housing. Howard Hughes has let the property deteriorate for more than a decade. They are now trying to increase the value of the property by using the affordable housing case to force West Windsor to rezone and allow a huge development.
Is it the court’s job to bail out a for-profit corporation on its bad investment? Can the courts force a township to rezone a property simply because a developer says it can’t develop it under the current zoning? The affordable housing case in front of the courts is truly a test for the legislature and courts on whether the Mount Laurel decisions give them a blank check to take advantage of towns like West Windsor.
As a councilman, I have thought long and hard about the issue. It’s my job to protect the long-term interests of West Windsor taxpayers. My obligation is to expose the system whenever and whatever way I can.
I believe the affordable housing issue is another instance of the state and the courts trying to do the easy thing rather than the right thing. Taking advantage of towns like West Windsor under the argument that they are rich is the easy thing to do. The right thing to do would be to truly provide for people who need affordable housing without soaking taxpayers and favoring for-profit developers.
The fact is that not everyone in West Windsor is well off. An average West Windsor taxpayer feels the same financial pressures faced by everyone in New Jersey. However, that taxpayer in West Windsor is being forced to share an unreasonable burden on every issue simply for the reality of living in West Windsor.
Under the guise of helping the poor, and with an assist from the courts, the developers may be able to ram imprudent developments down West Windsor’s throat. I predict it will be a short-term victory that will lead to long term pain as the township will be unable to absorb all development that the fair share people and the developers want.
The Mercer County Superior Court has an opportunity to set an example for the rest of the counties in New Jersey. As an elected representative, I pledge to do what I believe is in the best interest of West Windsor taxpayers in the long run.
This op-ed editorial is an attempt to start the discussion and an appeal to the legislature and courts not to put so many burdens on one township that the people revolt and say enough is enough.
— Hemant Marathe